1 Christ revealed our frailty and our falling,* our trespasses and our humiliations.
2 Christ also revealed his blessed power,* his blessed wisdom and love.
3 He protects us as tenderly and as sweetly when we are in greatest need;* he raises us in spirit and turns everything to glory and joy without ending.
4 God is the ground and the substance, the very essence of nature;* God is the true father and mother of natures.
5 We are all bound to God by nature,* and we are all bound to God by grace.
6 And this grace is for all the world,* because it is our precious mother, Christ.
7 For this fair nature was prepared by Christ for the honor and nobility of all,* and for the joy and bliss of salvation.
--Canticle S, "Enriching Our Worship 1," pp. 40-41
We just had a rather unique reminder of being "bound by nature" here in northeast Missouri the last couple of days. Kirksville got pounded by 16 inches of snow Feb. 1, and the whole region came to a standstill Feb. 2.
I knew I had changed my expectations for the snowstorm when I was sitting in my priest's office and looking out the window and said, "Hey, it's doing better. It's not snowing horizontally anymore."
But I had gotten back to town just in time to BARELY be able to get into my driveway and off the county road. Next morning, I was firmly "socked in," literally only two feet from the road, unable to get out. So close and yet so far. It was not until the county snowplow came by that I could get extricated. So I spent the night with the full knowledge that I could not leave my own property except on foot...in a blizzard.
Even then, I was not really "free." Eight feet of drifted snow had covered the gravel road that crosses my road and gives us all access to Highway 63. The snow plow had gotten stuck in the road (I've never seen a stuck snowplow before!)
So in short, I owed by ability to escape from this snowy white prison to the grace of many people. Not just the guy who plowed my road, and directly released me, but to a team of people trying to clean out my neighboring road. Getting me free was the thing I most noticed directly, but the actions of the people not on "my road," but the road next to it, mattered just as much. Getting out of one's own driveway is meaningless if you can't go anywhere substantial.
One of the wonderful things about nature (if you choose to look at it this way) is it really gets us in touch with our powerlessness. What we are able to do is pretty small potatoes. Really, the only thing I did in getting my truck out was flagging down the county truck and sitting in it, starting the motor and steering as they pulled me out. In other words, not much.
What are we able to control in nature? Oh, we can control where we are in the middle of it, and that's about it--and sometimes we can't control very much of that.
The line in that Canticle that stands out for me is "We are all bound to God by nature, and we are all bound to God by grace." What does that mean in a sense of relationship with God?
Actually, more than one form of "nature" plays into this. There's the actual physical form of nature--our geography, the exact spot we occupy on the GPS. There's the form of God's creation in which we have chosen to be--rural, urban, outdoors, indoors--not just in the "GPS location" sense but the reason why we are in this setting at this moment. There's our human nature--those innate things about us we always carry with us. There's the nature of how we are feeling on that given day. There's the nature of our relationship with God. Quite a few forms of nature, in fact.
Then comes the second half--we are bound by grace. Grace seems to me to be one of those funny things that we know it when we see it, but we are never quite come up with a suitable definition when we are asked to define it. I think that is because the nature of grace is that there is a mystery to it that is beyond our comprehension. To me, it's rooted in the way Jesus describes concepts "beyond the law."
Think about the times in the Gospels when people are more or less trying to trap him in the corner about various aspects of Torah law, like say, in Mark 10. The Pharisees are trying to corner him about divorce. When Jesus has been faced with those lines of questioning, he often re-frames it, querying back, "What does the law say about..." or "What does Moses (the physical embodiment of the law) say about...?" The answers to those questions are basically legal answers, and have a certain implied degree of clarity in a legal sense.
But his ultimate answer to them is one we've hashed back and forth since the day he uttered it, and various denominations are yet to agree on what the "total" answer to that is. His answer, simply stated, was, "He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Very concrete in that we have a clear answer that there is an adulterous act committed, but very unclear in whether that is an "instance" or a "constant state of being." Theologians have batted that one back and forth forever and probably always will.
I have come to realize that he said it the way he did, not to be the "final answer" to the question, but to open up everyone to all the questions. I've always found it interesting we often think we need to hear a "final answer" on that one and let the rest of the times he answers questions in similar fashion go; I suspect, frankly, it's because this question is, in a roundabout way about sex, and we become obsessed with sex. My opinion is he answered the question the way he did to ask us to ponder our relationship with all sin, not just sexual sin. For starters, adultery doesn't occupy a higher rung of the "sin ladder" than lying, cheating, or stealing in the general sense.
When we have lied, was that an occurrence, or, now that we have lied, does that make us in a constant state of lying? Well, the answer is a bit of both. When we lied, we transgressed in the speaking of that lie. But even if we never theoretically lied ever again, we will still have to constantly live with the possibility of a consequence of that lie rearing up its ugly head in a different form, whether it's the residue of that lie, or another situation that occurs as a result of the individual lie.
In short, this question challenges us to examine our lives both in an "in the moment" sense, and in the millieu of our life in total.
Well, grace is a little like that, but in a positive way, as opposed to transgressing against the law. The things that happen where we were given gifts which we had no control over--those things are instances of grace. Yet, as someone living within God's realm, we are also in a constant state of grace. Whether we can see or identify it or not, is irrespective of the fact we are present in that state.
So my answer to the question, "What is grace?" is that it is a state "beyond the law," and a constant state of the goodness of our relationship in God through Christ, yet punctuated by instances where we see it in the actions of those doing good, or situations where things worked themselves out.
In that sense, we are just as powerless over our "recipient-hood" of grace, as we are the forces of nature. Just as I could not, on my own, free my truck from its snowy prison, neither can I exit of my own accord from a state of grace.
We don't get grace via our own merits, and we can't remove ourselves from grace via our own actions. We are bound to Christ. We are there, anyway. All our protesting that we should be cut from the herd falls on deaf ears.
We need God and others to extricate us from the spiritual prison of our own character defects...and that is what living in community is all about.