There are some "spiritual words" and concepts that seem to have have traveled from the theological lexicon into our colloquial vocabulary. One of them is the concept of grace.
I first became curious about grace during my training as a spiritual director almost ten years ago. The training program took place at Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA, a regional conference and retreat center run by the Sisters of Mercy. And I heard the word grace so often that I could no longer ignore the fact that I did not understand the meaning of the word in my kishkes (translate from Yiddish: at a gut level).
I sent an email out to a random group of friends and colleagues, asking them to send me their definition of grace. I received a slew of fascinating responses from people, ranging from utterly perplexed to theologically rigid, depending on their political or spiritual point of view. One of my Catholic friends insisted that the only real source of grace was from Jesus. Another person defined it as magic, and yet another said it was inner peace.
Skeptical but curious, I began to observe and listen for how grace might reveal itself to me in the present moment. All the definitions I read referred to an experience of unexpected beauty, charm or blessing, as well as references to unconditional blessing or Divine love. In other words, you can't plan for grace or make it happen, but you know it when you feel it.
In Hebrew, the word grace is khen or khanum, and it is grammatically related to another Hebrew word, khinum, which means free or without strings attached. Khanum is often paired with rachum, which means compassion or mercy, and whose grammatical root is the same as the word for womb. I like that–unconditional loving compassion with no qualifiers. One does not have to earn grace; it comes to us freely and spontaneously–remember, no strings attached.
Perhaps grace holds us in the most intimate womb-like way, as if by the Source of Breath. And there is a gifted quality to grace, the gift of nurturing presence, especially when we don't think we deserve
it. We are never unworthy of grace.
Now, even though I still wrestle with the cumbersome limitations of words, I am unequivocally certain I have had a felt experience of grace on numerous occasions. Here are a few examples: listening to a beautiful or compelling piece of music, being in the presence of nature's astonishing power or beauty, a summer thunderstorm or turning the corner into a new season, like the longest day of the year when the sun sets late in the evening.
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whose voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can't see, can't hear
Can't know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren't always sound but other
Circles of motion.
–Joy Harjo, excerpt from "Eagle Poem"
An exploration of grace would be incomplete without mentioning the profound intimacy of a human encounter. When I feel a sense of connection to another person, particularly when someone risks vulnerability and visibility, there is grace. When there is trust, there is grace. When connection happens beyond words, in the freedom of silence or compassionate understanding, there is grace.
I suppose that's why the word grace is also used to mean sanctification, because those moments of connection are inarguably sacred and transcendent. No strings attached.
Can you recall an experience in which you felt a sense of grace? Where were you? Was anyone there with you? How did it feel? How might you draw upon that memory as a source of comfort or courage in your life right now?