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Issue Date:  March 18, 1994

Things that fail to explain amazing grace

Lives whose stories walk the line between meaning and mystery


There is the suspicion among even the most hardheaded people I know that their experiences cannot always be explained by genetics or coincidence or their own wills. These are people who never saw spooks in the night or UFOs. They do not consult the psychic hot line for what the stars portend. Some of them barely believe in God, others try not to, but all of them have told me stories of strength and courage, forgiveness and insight the reasons for which they cannot delineate.

The believers among my friends have an easier time with it. They name it grace: God chasing us in all our endeavors, even sometimes our running away. God refusing to be distant from us, finding a way into our lives through the nooks and crannies that betray our inability to be as self-sufficient as we’d like to think we are.

None of my friends, believing or not, counts these experiences as miracles but finds in them the odd combination of “something” and “the way things are.” There is no violation of their wills, no breach of nature but an uncanny cooperation among the elements of their lives.

Theologians have spent centuries discussing grace, delineating it along categorical lines. It’s a complex issue. Every attempt, however, at describing grace falls short of the experience that, when we are most honest, is what we say about all our God talk.

Proximate grace

She did not sleep much the six months she spent in a body brace lying in a crib in a corner of her parents’ bedroom. Through the long, hot summer and fall when the farmhouse was empty, her only diversion was the flies that swept around her. She made peace with them and even welcomed them after a time. For their part, the flies did not feed on her bedsores nor the excrement that occasionally trickled out of her diapers. At least she does not remember that they did; she was only 3.

She does not remember listening to the sleeping sounds of her parents and how long the nights were. She could not turn her head to watch her parents in bed but imagined their eyes closing like a doll’s when they put their heads on their pillows. It seems strange to her now but she never remembers her parents talking to each other at night. No soft love talk, no matter-of-fact detailing of the day; no “good nights”; nothing that could have warranted their sleeping in the same bed.

She remembers overhearing her parents speak over a late supper one night, “bed lunch” her mother called it. “We can’t afford all of this. We can’t afford the doctors. We can’t afford her. It would have been better if she had died.” That was her father, then her mother rushing in, “Shhhhhh. She’ll hear.” Again her father: “She knows. She knows.” And she did.

On her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, her sisters planned a surprise party. Each of the siblings was supposed to write a letter to her parents. The letters were to be read aloud before the toast. She found a reason not to make the party and sent her letter a week late. She wrote: “Dear Mom and Dad, I am sorry the three of us had to live most of our lives knowing you wanted me dead. It turned us into people we didn’t want to be. It drove us apart. I thank God we are the only three who knew it, that Patty and Michele always thought I was just a quiet child who grew up to be a quiet adult or that I was ungrateful. I’m not ungrateful, and I think I can forgive you for wanting me dead and me for living when I wasn’t wanted. I still can’t face you, but I want you to know that I love you and the only way I can love you is away from you.” Such is the grace that builds on nature, accepts and eases its limitations.

Sufficient grace

No one blamed him for taking the paring knife off the counter and chasing her around the kitchen when she turned on him, screeching and yowling again about how awful he had made all their lives. How if he were a decent man who loved his family they wouldn’t be stuck in this rat hole of a town in the middle of nowhere. She had raised the same blinding rage in others.

The paper boy kicked the door after she’d yelled at him. He broke his toe and his parents didn’t even discipline him for losing his temper. The mailman purposely dropped her favorite magazine in the snow before shoving it wet and bleeding into her mailbox after she’d written a letter to the postmaster general about him. The local priest swore a blue streak after she’d called to complain about how depressing his sermons were. Her children wouldn’t come home anymore.

He had stayed with her though -- until he went to prison for attempted murder -- and cried at her funeral when he buried her 10 years later.

At her wake he told his niece about the time he guarded a train in Germany as World War II was ending. It was filled with captured German soldiers who were being transported to a prison camp. One of them literally bumped into him trying to escape. He remembered looking into the man’s eyes with his finger on the trigger of his rifle. He confided to his niece: “I couldn’t shoot him. I couldn’t kill anyone. He got away.”

At 83, he had gone blind with cataracts and refused the laser surgery that would have restored his sight. “I’ve gotten used to the darkness,” he told his children, who long ago had realized that he suffered more than most men and accepted, more than most, the grace that does not relieve us of our burdens but makes them barely tolerable.

Uncreated grace

She entered the convent when she was 13. That’s not precisely true. They wouldn’t take her until she was 16, but she had gone away to their school and lived as a boarder under their strict supervision. She might as well have entered when she was 13.

Her adolescence was swallowed up by routine and deprivation. The deprivation only seems harsh to those who look on it from the outside, who have never been seized by a passion for perfection or believed -- really believed -- that our task on earth was to learn to love God above all things. There was no malice in the imposed destitution. It was self-imposed. It was the way things were and fit as snugly against the daily routine as the nuns’ chest girdles fitted against their sexuality. Life was hard, but it was not bitter. And if there were tears at night, they were accepted by the stiff pillow without complaint and left no stains.

Christmas was hard. Her parents and family sent presents, which in the strange ways of the convent were first opened by the mother superior or one of her delegates and then somewhat rewrapped and given to her to open. After she had opened her presents, she brought them back to the authorities and was given permission to keep one. Inevitably, the one she got to keep was the one she wanted least. The rest of her gifts were given to the old sisters in the retirement home who had no relatives, or to the poor children who boarded at their school. Not that these were great gifts. Rough men’s hankies, long black stockings, a pen, a rosary, a book about some saint: These were the standard.

She was 40 when she left the convent. They led her to a room, gave her some “street clothes” that didn’t fit and weren’t in style and $50. She cried. And, to be fair, so did they -- that night, into their pillows. The first thing she bought was an ice-cream cone, maple nut, from the Bridgeman’s across the street from the convent. She can still taste it when she is discouraged or tired or lonely. She didn’t need to buy more than one.

Now when her family sends her presents at Christmas, she is the first to open them and delight in the softness of their materials, the brilliance of their colors, the care in their choosing. She writes profuse thank-you notes, but keeps only one of the gifts. The rest she gives away to those who may have no need of them but have not yet learned to love God above all things. This is the grace of the God who loves her above all things.

Personified grace

When he was born his parents named him after his grandfather, “Paul,” who had fought with the underground in France and made a fortune after the war in jellies and pickles. They expected great things from him. In the way prodigious expectations are often ridiculed by reality, he grew up a sickly child, asthmatic and weak-boned, with an ambling mind that was at once curious and bored. He jumped from one thing to the next, great schemes piling up in his mind, crumbling before his will. His father wore out pair after pair of walking shoes troubling over his son. His mother wrote long letters to her family telling them how Paul was doing.

Finally, he settled on a career. He was going to be a printer. Not a publisher, as his mother wrote to her family, and not an entrepreneur, as his father imagined on his walks. But a printer. The one who makes plates, piles reams of paper in feeders. The one who comes home after working eight hours with ink stains up to his elbows and never again has clean fingernails. His parents couldn’t figure out where this desire came from and for once hoped that like all his ambitions, this one would pass.

It would not.

He began work on the first of May in a little shop that printed wedding invitations and the memorial cards that funeral homes pass out at wakes. When his father pointed out to him that everything was going on computers and soon nothing would be printed because everything would be electronic mail, he laughed and said, “Everyone still has to die. Everyone will need a card with a prayer on it at their funeral.” When his mother said optimistically that this was a great way to learn the publishing business from the ground up, he said. “I like it where I am. Besides, there are other reasons for working than making money.”

One of the reasons was the daughter of the shop owner. She was big-boned and had dark, straight hair. She was a steady worker who could toss bales of paper around as easily as any man and greet prospective customers with an honest charm that made them feel comfortable leaving with her the best pictures of their departed loved ones. Her name was Grace, and she proved for all her life and his to be equal to her name for both of them.

Actual grace

He smoked Camel straights, packing them tight against his lighter before he lighted them. Sitting alone in the smoking section at the airport he seemed unconcerned when an elderly lady sniffed the air and made a big deal of moving herself and her luggage to a different gate, where there were no smokers. She glared at him across the terminal, pinching her nose in disgust, playing the other passengers for sympathy and, if she could have managed it, revolt. He blew a little smoke in her general direction and then started to read a novel. He was going home, to Iowa.

He had been in Texas for five years completing his college education. Finally, at 34, he had graduated. In the process he’d lost a wife, picked up a live-in girlfriend with two children and cut his red hair short. He had never finished high school. “Drugs,” he told the person sitting next to him on the plane. “I started when I was 13 and lost about 16 years. I was in jail, in hospitals, on the streets. For 10 of those years I worked as an electrician. Surprises the hell out of me that I’m still alive.”

Flying over the Missouri-Iowa border he put a cigarette in his mouth. The person next to him looked. “I’m not going to light it, but I wish I could. I’ve got a girl down there; she’s 13 now. I haven’t seen her for five years. I wonder if she’ll still call me Dad.”

Then he continued: “I’m going to graduate school, you know? Yep, I got accepted.” A question came back, as expected: “For what?” “Poetry. I want to be a poet,” he said, clinching the cigarette in his teeth.

“Poets starve,” said the other passenger.

“Yeah, so do druggies,” he said, “but without as much grace.”

Redemptive grace

The day President Kennedy died, the principal came into the classroom and told everyone to kneel and pray: “The president has been shot. Pray, because it was your sins that caused this.” Then she was gone, along with the sister who taught sixth grade. They’d gone to the convent to watch television.

The 19 sixth-graders stayed on their knees the entire afternoon praying the rosary, over and over. During that long afternoon he, like most of his classmates, wondered whether it was one particular sin of his that had caused the president’s death or all of his sins combined. He’d always been taught that sin provoked terrible things. Never before had he known such a direct and terrifying relationship.

That night there was a special Mass. Everyone from the small town came, knowing the president was dead, but not exactly why. Some people claimed it was a Russian plot, thick and brutal. Others thought Castro was behind it. Still others, although these were more careful about saying so for fear of being called a communist, thought it might have had something to do with the unions and Jimmy Hoffa. Underneath it all, though, was the unspoken but unrelenting suspicion that their sins had caused this. The true nature of the universe was revealed in such tragic events. Everyone and everything was invisibly but unmistakably bonded. No amount of finger-pointing or speculation could erase what everyone knew in their hearts: They were all individually and corporately to blame.

He served the Mass that night and cried with everyone else when they sang the “Our Father.” It was an unmelodious rendering accompanied on the organ by the principal-sister who that night counted among her transgressions her lack of charity in criticizing the Mass-goers for their inability to stay in tune with the organ. She, too, accepted responsibility for the young president’s death and begged forgiveness.

He left the townspeople speaking in whispers on the steps of the church and walked the six blocks to his home. On the way he was visited by the grace that knows that every human pain and every human suffering begins with the refusal to love -- the most common of sins. And he understood for the first time the converse: how it could be true that redemption of the whole human race could come by the love of one man.

Accidental grace

She had grown fat on cake doughnuts and borrowed sorrows. Eventually, her self-pity clung to her like the sweat in the folds of her flesh. She was not an easy person to be around. It was not her complaining that prompted people to cross the street to avoid her. It was the sympathy she sought:

“My arthritis is acting up again. I couldn’t sleep at all last night. Of course, I’ve gotten used to the pain. It’s with me all the time. ...

“Did you hear about the Johnson boy? That woman he married left him with two babies to take care of. Oh, how my heart aches for him and for those babies. Such innocents. I just cry and cry when I think about them growing up without a mother. ...

“I heard that Clara had her colon cancer surgery and she has to wear an appliance now. My own stomach just churns to think about it. I think I feel the same thing coming on. I tried to make an appointment with my doctor and his girl told me I’d have to wait at least a month to see him. Such an injustice! Everyone knows the earlier you catch cancer the better your chances. It’s just the cross we bear for living in this small town where the doctors have a monopoly. ...”

On Easter morning she put on the big print floral dress she had worn the year before and a delicate white hat with just a sliver of a veil brushing her forehead. In church the priest announced a sprinkling rite, reminding them all that in baptism everyone died with Christ; so, too, did they hope to rise with him. He gave her an extra dose of Easter water to cure what ailed her. The starched veil of her hat melted across her forehead and stuck.

After Mass, she cornered the priest and told him: “Getting soaked with so much water, Father, is not a spiritual experience. Still, I suppose you try to do your best, and I must remember that.”

“How kind of you,” he said insincerely.

“Yes it is," she said, realizing by accidental grace how much she tried and how much she got wrong and that she really did want to rise with Christ someday.

George Szews is a priest of the LaCrosse, Wis., diocese and the pastor of the Newman Community, a campus ministry parish.

National Catholic Reporter, March 18, 1994

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