“Suddenly, the perfect solution just popped into my mind.”
“I don’t know where I found the courage, but I spoke up.”
“I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how it happened, but everything just fell into place.”
“I have practiced my art since childhood, but I know there are moments when I go way beyond my skill level.”
“Finally, without even trying, I met just the right guy or woman.”
“I don’t know what came over me, but after all of these years of hanging back, I finally stepped up to the plate.”
“I felt as if I were somehow guided to this decision.”
“It was a moment of truth.”
“The realization came to me in a dream.”
“While volunteering at hospice I have found myself sometimes saying something really right on, and I know I did not think of it on my own or know it before.”
“I just stopped wanting to retaliate. Somehow, I had a change of heart and was able to forgive.”
We have all said things like this and have wondered where the “special gift” came from. We have found out, again and again, that more seems to be going on in our life than can be accounted for by our own efforts or our own level of knowledge. We keep noticing that something more is afoot in the world than just ourselves and what we do. Our forward move on life’s path does not seem to be based solely on our accomplishments, merit, or our sense of worthiness. Something seems to be helping us, an empowering force around us that yet seems to be within us.
If we look back over the episodes and milestones of our lives, we notice that often something beneficial was happening that was not the result of our choice, effort, or expectation. We were somehow guided to or given an impetus to make a leap into something new. That special assistance, unearned, unforeseen, unplanned, often unnoticed, is a description of grace, the gift dimension of life.
The experience of grace makes the world less scary. We feel that we have more to rely on than only our own ego as we face life’s most menacing threats and buffets. Trust in grace is an antidote to fear of what life may bring, because it enables us to feel that we have something going for us in any predicament.
“Call upon the Force!” Luke Skywalker, in Star Wars, takes this advice. If he is to achieve success, it will not depend on his skills alone. There is something else, and it is reliable, something he cannot conjure but can only call upon. It is from the universe, but it is in him too. This is grace, the invisible star of his—and of every human’s—story.
The Force is with Luke because he is important to the galaxy—just as we are. This book is about the Force—grace—that is with us so that we too can fulfill our destiny.
But Luke also noticed that the Force was not enough. He knew that he would have to contribute his own ingenuity and perseverance in order to fulfill his challenging task. Grace is not meant to do it all. Grace is a gift, but it recruits our effort so we can join in the enterprise. Grace gives us an opportunity; it is up to us to step up to the plate. This can mean acting with courage when the going gets rough. It can mean taking hold and holding on when the time has come to persevere. To know the difference is itself a grace.
Our life is thus a combination of what comes to us unbidden and what we choose to do in response. So, for instance, it is the grace of synchronicity, a meaningful coincidence, that leads us to meet a suitable partner at just the right moment. This simply happens. Then it is up to us to form and nurture a meaningful relationship. We commit ourselves to continue the venture that grace began.
Thus, grace is both a comfort and a challenge. We are comforted by the invisible incentive that kicks in for us, giving us the sense that something helpful is at our side. Yet we are also challenged by the next steps we will be asked to take to follow up on the opportunity being offered to us. For instance, we find contentment in discovering the career that fits for us, but it will be a challenge to take the laborious steps to make a success of it.
Our sense of our own wholeness would be diminished if all there were in life was what we do—with no room for grace to join in on the playing out of our story. Our world would be sadly deficient if everything depended on us, with no surprising benefits landing in our laps unexpectedly and unpredictably. It is a joy to realize that our world is a web of life that combines do-it-yourself activity with a vast network of unseen assistance.
We might feel the coming of grace into our lives as a caring about us from a power beyond us. We interpret this sense of being held or cared about as evidence of a friendly universe. We come to trust that something wants us to find fulfillment, happiness, and enlightenment—just what we want for each other when we love. We feel an unexpected alliance between ourselves and the universe or a power higher than our ego. This is connection, accompaniment, the essence of love. We recall Socrates’s words in Plato’s Symposium: “Human nature will not easily find a helper better than love.”
For some of us, family members and friends who were dear to us and have died sometimes seem to be present to us in an accompanying way. Since accompaniment is a quality of grace, we can say that their life was a grace to us. Their giving to us did not end with their demise; it goes on. We may carry a felt sense that somehow those who loved us and whom we loved so much did not abandon us totally but live in our hearts in a companionable, sometimes guiding way. When this is our actual experience, no one can convince us otherwise.
In any case, in a moment of grace we understand that we are not alone. There is something or someone reaching into our saga and participating in how our evolution progresses. We can learn to notice the graces in our life story. Eventually, we can learn to see that something, we know not what and beyond our control, is enlarging us and multiplying our options. The “something” is not some thing but rather an energy, a force, an operative principle in people, places, and things. Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist, approaches this same point in his book Accidental Universe: “Extraordinary physical coincidences and apparently accidental cooperation . . . offer compelling evidence that something is going on. . . . A hidden principle seems to be at work, organizing the universe in a coherent way.” The word hidden reminds me now that all the words about grace in this book are metaphors, crude and inexact, for a mysterious encounter with forces that hold and aid us.
Grace is not a concept found in a psychology book, seldom even in a book of spiritual practices. It calls to us from the realizations of mystics and, of course, from our own experience, which feels trustworthy to us no matter how outlandish it may seem to the world of science. Our experience has to be the final arbiter of our personal truth.
Yet we also know that grace is an ancient belief in the human psyche, as old as religion and history. Socrates opposed the doctrine of the Sophists that arête, that is, virtue, can be learned or earned. He showed that moral excellence was more a gift of the gods than the result of parental nurture or personal effort. This gift is what we are referring to as grace.
A careful reading of early literature, for example The Iliad or The Odyssey, reveals that every achievement, wisdom, or virtue of a hero is ascribed to the help/grace of a god or goddess. The alternative is hubris, the arrogant belief that we humans are it, that our own skills are all that is required for success. This inflated-ego style is what catapults the hero into a tragic downfall. With increasing spiritual consciousness, humans come to see that grace, and awareness of it with thanks for it, is the royal road to the deposing of our solitary ego from its stone throne in our psyches. This is how opening to grace is a spiritual victory.
We see an example of how grace dismantles the ego in 12-step recovery programs. The addict comes to see his powerlessness over his cravings and is moved to rely on a power beyond his ego. Then a transition occurs that can only be accounted for by grace: the style of the addict, “I want more for me,” becomes the style of recovery: “There is more with me.”
On its own, the ego does not want to surrender to a power described as greater than itself, no matter how helpful it is. This is why grace is called amazing, as in the famous hymn. It can successfully compel the most stubborn force on earth, the arrogant ego, to surrender to the truth that it is not really in control and to become humble enough to ask for help. Grace is thus also the help that leads to help.
The word grace is usually associated with religion and belief in God. This book is not about theology but about how we can take a concept from religion and appreciate what it can offer for our own spiritual and personal progress. We can find an enriching resource, an archetypal reality, within the religious tradition that has preserved a belief in grace over the centuries. That is what is so exciting—and promising—about our topic.
Indeed, so many realities have to wait until the world is ready to make them fully understandable or acceptable. Here is an analogy: Science fiction proposes fantasies that might someday be realities. Heroes and explorers accomplish feats that might someday be common practice, for example, flight across the Atlantic. Likewise, religion preserves beliefs that are insights into the purposes and powers of humanity.
It seems to me that anyone can notice and respond to a gift dimension in life, with or without a belief in God. A higher power does not necessarily need to be identified with a traditional view of God. It does not even have to have a name. A higher power can be an interior dimension of our psyche, transcendent because it’s beyond what ego can muster or master. The transcendent is the more that cannot be grasped by intelligence, only by experience. It can be felt fully but not fully understood intellectually. It is like the love felt in a favor, like the awe felt in nature. We recall John Muir in My First Summer in the Sierra: “It is easier to feel than to realize, or in any way explain, Yosemite grandeur.”
With or without religion, any of us can believe in—and most of us have noticed—a resource beyond our own will or intellect that helps us on our path. This is grace, a power that is beyond our control or ability to predict, something beyond mere chance, something that blesses us beyond our ability to bless ourselves. This is the sense in which I will use the word transcendent in the pages that follow. Once we notice and acknowledge the workings of grace in our daily experience, we begin to see it as an underlying element in all that happens and an indispensable feature of human growth.
From The Power of Grace by David Richo, © 2014 by David Richo. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston, MA. www.shambhala.com.