Dear Peregrinus (Saturday, 1 PM, during Lent):
I really enjoyed our opportunity to go to the Peet’s Coffee Shop recently and, while enjoying the robust coffee for which they are known, being able to talk about many things.
That we got eventually to Lenten musings makes sense, because you and I have regularly helped each other pay closer attention to sacred “seasons” of the Christian year – the season of Advent and Christmastide; the season of Lent and Eastertide – lest in the dashing and rushing about of our daily lives we miss the season and its spiritual purposes in us. Though I have always been attentive to the special nature of these seasons, I confess that I have often worked harder during the season (my profession would assume that this would be typical) than I have felt or explored or made myself available to the season and its Mystery.
Anyway, you said something to me that I “caught,” caught as a stream-side branch of a tree or bush sagging down into the surface of the flowing water catches a leaf that would otherwise slip by and be gone forever. And though you did not mean anything in particular by what you said – you were making a completely different point – it was the particular turn of phrase that I noticed and have wondered about since.
Let me see if I can reconstruct for you what you said and the context in which you set it.
Remember how you were talking about Phil and about how much grace God gives to him? What puzzled you was how it was possible for Phil, apparently, to overlook the graces he receives from God Who clearly answers his prayers more consistently than you yourself ever experience God answering yours. You said, “Phil needs to learn how to own the graces God gives him.”
And then you went on to wonder out loud whether Phil’s habit of overlooking the graces was actually a virtue rather than a failure of attention to graces received?
This turn of thought surprised me, and I told you so. But then you explained that it could be that Phil doesn’t cling to the graces he receives – which could appear to someone else that he is overlooking them – because he understands that they – each one – is really not his to own but his to pass on to others. In short, you wondered whether he was overlooking the graces as his because he was paying attention to these graces as theirs, for those to whom God wanted him to give them. You considered that Phil could be attentive to others to such a degree that he really doesn’t recognize how much grace he in fact brings to the others among he goes. In this regard you recalled a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe,” in which are these lines 26-33:
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deeméd, dreaméd; who
This one work has to do –
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.
I loved your line of thought, but to be honest I got stuck on that word “to own.” And I am writing to share with you something that came of my musings. They are still in process, but I know that you always understand that about me, no matter how confidently I may express a conviction. Even my strongest convictions are still more pointers to realities greater than my tiny convictions are able to corral, than they are the expression of full comprehension. My convictions are really an expression of ongoing wonder; they are not the foreclosing of wonder or the reduction of Mystery to problems. St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 CE) once wrote:
“Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.”
People regularly seek out the Faber Institute for spiritual direction. By this I mean that they have a monthly habit of coming to share as best they can with me what they sense God is up to with them, so that they may be trained in the art of noticing accurately their interior experiences and distinguishing better what is of God in their experiences. Or, this may sometimes be expressed as practicing a monthly discipline of being helped to recognize divine graces given to them and getting better at owning them.
I have recognized how often a person will say that he or she desires that a grace be given him or her. “I have asked God for this grace for a long time now.” Or, “I have asked for this grace, if not all the time then at least often enough for me to notice that God has not yet given it to me.” Or, “Why does God not answer my prayer, when I am sure that what I am asking is utterly appropriate for me to ask?”
In whatever way a person expresses this, I have trained myself to assume that God has in fact already answered his or her prayer … but that he or she does not recognize it as already given. I must say that my assumption very often turns out to be a good one.
Why do people miss a grace given them? Now, here is my thought, activated around a play on the English verb “to own,” and for the sake of articulating which idea I sat down this afternoon to write to you, old friend. I am wondering whether the problem is that people seek a grace of their own and so miss the opportunity given them to own a grace already given to us. The play on words that generates my musings is about a grace of “their own” and a grace “to own.”
It is my conviction that if a person keeps looking for a grace of his or her own – God answering them in particular and delivering to them a specially-built grace all their own – then he or she will overlook so many graces already lavished on him or her through the Church.
What do I mean? I mean that most of the particular graces that people seek for themselves have already been given to the Church long ago in the lives of people just like us, and whose lives and example and teaching and hymns and paintings and poems and writings are already given us. Once God gives a grace, it is permanently given in history, never withdrawn. All a person has to do is to begin to read widely in the great spiritual tradition of Christianity, and step by step to begin to own old graces – “beauty ever ancient, ever new.”
Why would God respond to my request to have a grace of my own, when He has already given the same grace to a holy one of our Christian past, and who passed on that grace so beautifully to all of us in his or her writings? Why would God give to me my own Bible, when the Bible we have is the story of graces already given to all of us – and when all we have to do is to pick up and read? Why would God re-give it and so enable you or me to avoid knowing those great ones of our Christian past?
God would not, I say.
Rather, God would desire us to own the graces already given in our great Tradition. And here it is worth recalling, that our “tradition” is a noun sourced in the the Latin noun traditio. And that Latin noun has roots in the Latin preposition trans– “over”; and the verb do– “to give,” meaning “I am in the process of giving or handing over” what I have learned, received as a grace, to someone else … so that they can have it as I have it.
People would find answers to their prayers far, far more often if they could learn to fast from wanting a grace of their own, learning how to own what graces have already been given them in our great Christian tradition.
I am your good friend in Christ,