Varieties of Grace

Fig_TreeI’m not susceptible to guilt. I’m sensitive to social pressure, for sure, and can be “guilted into” doing or saying things I don’t really mean. I feel terrible when I’ve failed to meet an obligation or hurt another person. But I don’t really feel that I’ve sinned — I don’t have the inner sense that God is unhappy with me, that I’m unworthy, or that I need divine forgiveness. I just want to repair my mistakes, or feel frustrated if I can’t. I sat in an Episcopal Easter vigil a few days ago, and the liturgy dwelled for a time on human sinfulness. I thought for a moment about my sins, and I actually couldn’t name anything specific at first. After a few minutes I lit on a relationship with one of my children that I have been been damaging with my actions, and I began to think of that as real sin, not just my being emotionally inadequate to the task of mothering. But that way of thinking — I’ve sinned, I’m guilty, I need God’s forgiveness and rescue — is not my first reflex. That’s just not the way my psyche works, for whatever reason: maybe my upbringing, or my brain structure, or my life experiences.

I’m not proud of this, but I’m not ashamed of it, either: it’s just how I am. I think it probably hinders my ability to empathize with others in some situations and veils a central part of human experience from me; it probably also makes me less scrupulous about private religious observances. Of course, maybe I’m a horrible sociopath and just don’t see it — I guess you’d have to ask my friends and family about that.  On the other hand, my missing guilt receptors have probably saved me some needless anguish and kept me on a pretty even emotional keel that allows me to serve others and contribute in the community.

All this to say that I listened to Elder Uchtdorf’s Sunday morning talk, “The Gift of Grace,” with great interest and respect, but without the overwhelming emotional response that many people experienced. I felt happy for their sakes, happy that their burdens were lifted and their souls watered. But the talk didn’t really re-frame my own felt relationship to God in a deep way, because sin and forgiveness just aren’t the channels through which that connection flows. William James distinguished between “healthy-minded” and “sick” souls, without attaching moral judgment to either one: the healthy are those who feel fundamentally at home and right with the world, and the sick those who feel fundamentally broken and out of place. I’m a healthy-minded soul.* I would imagine that James’s “sick souls” are those who most fervently respond to Elder Uchtdorf’s talk.

While sin and guilt have scant purchase my soul, death stalks my imagination. I am terrified of death — my own death, the death of those I love, the death of the sun and the scattering of a cold universe. I’m afraid too of the death-seeking drives of human nature, our indenture to fleshly instinct and our lust for status, Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animal” and the Preacher’s lament that all is vanity and striving after wind. All flesh is grass. This fear should be assuaged by a robust sense of Christian grace — after all, in the resurrection Christ vanquished hell and death. But this witness has not yet been given to me, or I have not yet allowed it to penetrate my hard heart. I live in hope that it may someday, but for now the veil over my mind is lead.

Maybe my mostly sunny nature seems like a contradiction, then. But it doesn’t feel that way to me: I fear death as I do because life is so fine. I want a thousand miraculous April 7ths, when everything improbably blooms overnight and the air is sweet and velvet. I want to plant a thousand seeds, raise a thousand children, learn a thousand piano concertos. I want a thousand years of mud under my fingernails and fat earthworms slipping through invisible tunnels in the rotting leaves. I want to hike every dry canyon, shovel snow for days, nurse every baby. I want to read every book to my children under every shockingly spring-green tree, and together memorize the exact pattern of the leaves against the sky. I want to fly for miles with the wind in my hair and my son in my arms. The turning of the seasons, the passage of the holidays and the marking of that passage with my children fills me with belonging, at-homeness, connection to past and future and every leaf and stone. I feel that the world was given to me — no, that I was given to the world. I can only interpret this feeling as divine. As grace, in fact.

When Nibley writes about grace, he sets the scene in Eden. But it’s not the Fall he focuses on, it’s the Lord’s gift of creation, a new world in which Adam, male and female, is placed in every sense of that rich, earthy, growing, dying word. Place, for me, is grace. My deepest spiritual perceptions do not take the form of a cross; this probably makes me a poorer disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. They take the form of a tree. But there is grace there, too.



*With the exception of the months after each of my babies were born, when I suffered from terrible post-partum depression and anxiety. These experiences changed me, not least in bringing into focus the well-being that I am fortunate to experience as normal at other times.