The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The paradox of grace

All things work for good
for those who love God.
Romans 8:28

On Thanksgiving Day (and hopefully, every day) we stop and give thanks to God for the many blessings we have received in our lives. But how often do we thank God for the trials, difficulties, and crosses that challenge us to grow spiritually as human beings and children of God? Even our faults and shortcomings are blessings in this respect. Through faith, we are strengthened in virtue by struggling against vice. Unforeseen limitations and unwanted diminishments offer us new ways of seeing, hoping, and loving.

This is the paradox of grace which waters the roots of our Christian faith. "Blessed are the poor in spirit," Jesus tells us, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). "Rejoice in the Lord always," St. Paul wrote from prison. "Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:7).

This peace is what is what every human heart desires and seeks. We look for it everywhere, but it is only truly found in the cross, because it is there that we meet God and echo the "good thief" crucified with Christ: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42). In other words, our trials, difficulties, and crosses teach us that we are completely dependent on God's loving mercy and grace.

Beginning 10 years ago, I experienced what seemed like an avalanche of misfortune, and it struck on physical, emotional, and spiritual levels with such force that it left me dazed and confused. But it was within that "low ebb" that I reached out to God in a way that was completely uncharacteristic for me. There was nowhere else to turn my gaze but up.

While I never want to go through something like that again and wouldn't wish such things on my worst enemy, there is no discounting the grace wrought from them. Conversion, sobriety, and discernment of a religious vocation are just a few of the many blessings that resulted. Another monk asked me a few years ago whether I regretted being an alcoholic (now almost nine years sober). "No," I said, "It's part of my story. Even that taught me things I probably wouldn't have learned otherwise." Blessings are not disguised. They simply come in an array of packages. All is grace.

Last weekend, while I was in Dayton, Ohio, for an oblate conference, oblate Pat O'Malley said during a group session of lectio divina that she was filled with indescribable peace prior to a serious medical procedure last year. Before the procedure, doctors told her it was quite likely she would not survive it. She did survive, but for those moments before the anesthetic was administered, grace overflowed. "I was ready, either way," she said. And the smile on her face as she recalled it demonstrated that she still is.

Below is the poem that our lectio group read and discussed. As you will see, it is bound tightly by the tension of paradox, but it is a wonderful tension that is ultimately freeing. Many thanks to Pat for sharing it, and all thanks and praise to God, through whom all things work for good. A Blessed Thanksgiving to all. May you each experience that "strange, settled peace which nothing can destroy."

O Thou whose bounty fills my cup,
with every blessing meet!
I give Thee thanks for every drop--
the bitter and the sweet.

I praise Thee for the desert road,
and for the riverside;
For all Thy goodness hath bestowed,
and all Thy grace denied.

I thank Thee for both smile and frown,
and for the gain and loss;
I praise Thee for the future crown
and for the present cross.

I thank Thee for both wings of love
which stirred my worldly nest;
And for the stormy clouds which drove
me, trembling, to Thy breast.

I bless Thee for the glad increase,
and for the waning joy;
And for this strange, this settled peace
which nothing can destroy.

Jane Crewdson

Do you see an old woman or a young one?
They're both there.

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