Our Catholic friends have a pretty tight grip on the term “The State of Grace” for, literally, ages. Over many centuries they have defined it, mostly in catechistic terms as a state of sanctification by God. Most particularly, the “State of Grace” is discussed in terms of holy communion, when a person must be cleansed of their sins before Christ can spiritually inhabit them. According to the website “Catholic Answers (subtitled: “To Explain and Defend the Faith”) “We receive sanctifying grace (the life of God in our soul) at Baptism. We lose it if we commit a mortal sin, that is, we are no longer in a state of grace. If we have lost the state of grace by mortal sin, we regain it in the sacrament of penance (reconciliation, confession). That is why the Catechism also says:
#1415 ‘Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharistic communion must be in the state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance.’”
This notion of being able to simply be absolved of your sins by a priest, or any other human being, is something Protestants have objected to for a very long time. Their equivalent term is called “Divine Grace”. That is, incidentally, a term present in many religions. It has been defined as the divine influence, which operates in humans to regenerate and sanctify, to inspire virtuous impulses, and to impart strength to endure trial and resist temptation; and as an individual virtue or excellence of divine origin.
According to Wikipedia, Grace in Christianity is the free and unmerited favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowing of blessings. It is God's gift of salvation granted to sinners for their salvation. Common Christian teaching is that grace is unmerited mercy (favor) that God gave to humanity by sending his son to die on a cross, thus delivering eternal salvation.
Here is where crucially distinguishing theological battle lines have been drawn. On the Catholic side, God can grant graceful dispensations through baptism or communion. Catholics can charge up, if you will, their depleted spiritual juice through absolution and sacraments. The Calvinist doctrine known as “irresistible grace” states that, since all persons are by nature spiritually dead, no one desires to accept this grace until God spiritually enlivens them by means of regeneration. But the rub is that God only regenerates those individuals whom he has predestined to salvation. So, for many Protestants, especially those of the Calvinistic flavor, man gets cut no breaks: they avoid language that would suggest that man earns anything by his obedience in grace.
C. S. Lewis wrote that this dispute "does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary". I largely agree with my namesake, Mr. Lewis. I depart from him, however, by rejecting the concept that grace is entirely bestowed by God and that one must be worthy of it. And that is because I reject the idea of original sin, which is why I could never remain a Catholic. By the way, did you know that there are 2856 points in the Catholic Catechism? I mentioned #1415 a minute ago. Hey, you know you can view the entire Catholic Catechism on line. I found it to be quite interesting reading, and a wonderful affirmation for why I am a Unitarian Universalist.
You see, my main contention with what I would call “orthodox” Christianity is the concept that we human beings are inherently sinful because of the “Fall” of Adam and Eve. According to Catholics we are corrupt and have a tendency to sin. Protestants say that because of the Fall, all human beings are creatures of total depravity and guilt. Catholics cut us a break with our “tendency” talk and they hold out hope that we can be redeemed during our lifetimes by, basically seeking the grace of God. Protestants give no quarter... only God dispenses grace according to His own inscrutable desires.
Allow me to leave doctrine behind. I personally have no use for it. I have no use for the 2856 points of catechism or the Calvinist view of the God that I personally experience and love.
Instead, I wish to focus on the heart of grace, which still manages to shine through despite religious and doctrinal barriers. I am talking about grace that is defined in these, more secularly ways:
In more spiritual terms, I am talking about grace that is:
Some of you may know that I have been a composer and cellist for most of my life. From a very early time in my life people would ask me what it is like to compose music. I have always replied that I enter into a state of grace while I am composing, and even for some time after the work is done. I do other creative work... in fact, I tell people that I only do one thing (that is to create), but I do it in a lot of different ways. So, there have been times during and after performing on the cello when I feel a strong sense of grace. When I have flown an airplane in a particularly excellent way, I feel that state of grace. When I design and build something, again, I experience that state of grace.
But for me, it is in the act of composing that I feel the strongest pull of grace. When I am deep in creative work I feel like I am allowed to live in a cathedral where God and I hang out. God dances around in cargo shorts and a halter-top and she laughingly flings music at me. My job is to catch anything she gives me. I am simply a clean vessel to be used by her. I am emptied of ego, free from thought, and unburdened by convention when I am there. And after the work is done there is an afterglow for a time. So here’s the secret about me. I don’t do the creative work I do that has become my life’s calling because I want to experience the awesome power of co-creation. No it’s none of that. It’s because I simply love abiding in God’s presence. There is nothing more sweet or amazing or perfectly intimate to me in life than to be loved and touched by God in this way.
I like what Tim Hansel had to say about how grace can operate in our lives. In a more succinct way than I, he describes the process of co-creation when he said “Grace is the central invitation to life and the final word. It's the beckoning nudge and the overwhelming, undeserved mercy that urges us to change and grow, and then gives us the power to pull it off.” Hansel hits it on the nail... if you let God, or whatever you define as a power beyond your own, be your partner in creation, you can accomplish anything you desire.
Tim Hansel knows a thing or two about finding joy and grace. For a little over a decade now he has lived with continual and debilitating physical pain as a result of a climbing accident in the Sierras. In his wonderful book entitled “You Gotta Keep Dancin’” he writes:
We determine to face life with optimism, courage and perseverance because we truly believe that God is here,
We are convinced that there are unseen benefits in every experience,
We believe that good will ultimately triumph,
And we cling tenaciously to the truth that nothing that happens, no matter how painful or mysterious, can ever separate us from God’s love.
What Hansel says about truly believing that God is here, really speaks to one of the essential attributes of grace. It reminds me of a story told by my good friend, Terry Daniels, about his father, who was a construction surveyor since the Korean War era. Coincidentally, Terry’s father is also an Irish Catholic man. Terry said that his father always had an air of invincibility about him whenever he worked on dangerously busy streets. No matter what the circumstances, his father was always calm and unruffled by the chaos around him. Terry described it as a “bubble of invincibility”. When he was a young man Terry sometimes worked with his father.
On one occasion, when he was about 18 years old, Terry was unnerved by the traffic situation he and his father faced. He said. “My spidey sense of being in danger was clearly different from Dad’s”. He asked his father if he was at all worried about what they were doing. His father looked at him and tersely replied, “What, you’re not in a state of grace?”. Clearly Terry was not. So he went to the side of the road to compose himself and wrote “The State of Grace Surveyor” on his leather utility belt with a magic marker. He then rejoined his father in the midst of the chaos and said, pointing to his belt, “Dad, I’m in a state of grace now!” His father replied, “All right then!” and the two continued their work.
Another attribute of grace, and being in the state of it, is its abundant nature. Grace is an outpouring of favor... and love. Have you ever considered how all of us living on this planet today are truly blessed to be here? Astronomers call our corner of the universe a circumstellar habitable zone, more popularly known as the Goldilocks zone, which is the region around a star within which planetary-mass objects with sufficient atmospheric pressure can support liquid water at their surfaces. According to a recent scientific computer model of the Milky Way, Duncan Forgam, an astronomer at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland estimates there could be 34,984 intelligent civilizations in our local galaxy. Out of billions upon billions of stars, that is a frighteningly small number.
Considering the violence of our sun and our proximity to it, the magnetic field and atmosphere that protects us, how can anyone argue that we are here at all but for an abundance of grace! When viewed from this perspective, our planet, and the creatures living on it are the recipients of a huge favor.
Did you know that the cross section of the Earth intercepts less than a billionth of the Sun's energy. Even so, the energy output of our Sun in one second is equivalent to the energy produced by 90 billion H-bombs. Or, put another way, 4 trillion trillion 100 watt light bulbs! So, just to be on this planet, we are all living in an extraordinary state of grace, as evidenced by the sheer abundance of energy directed towards us for at least several more billion years.
About the abundance of grace we receive, Nancy Spiegelberg, a Christian writer, wrote, “Lord I crawled across the barrenness to you with my empty cup uncertain in asking any small drop of refreshment. If only I had known you better I'd have come running with a bucket.”
Up to now I defined states of grace from doctrinal, religious, secular, spiritual, and even scientific perspectives. I have told you how I personally experience states of grace through my creative work. I’ve told you about my friend Terry’s roadside state of grace experience, and Tim Hansel’s views, and we’ve examined how abundantly we are graced with our very lives every second of our existence on a cosmic scale.
Now I wish to discuss how every one of us can experience and share states of grace. In a sermon I wrote exactly three years ago entitled “Faith Flow and the God Machine” I described how faith in the persistence of happiness can bring a sense of joy into our lives. I wrote, “...faith can be in a God that is external to us and our everyday experiences, or it can be in our own abilities and convictions that are rooted in direct personal knowledge and experiences. In the context of happiness, faith in that happiness persisting... a sense that things will go right for us... is either provided by a God outside of us, or provided by ourselves through what the Buddists would say is a joy derived from conviction and determination to accomplish our goals.”
Faith, flow, joy, contentment, and grace are all words used to describe a core feeling... that sense of effortless beauty, form, or proportion. It is a feeling that everything is right and that our place in the universe is necessary and important. In the context of being in a state of grace, the aspect of receiving undeserved gifts, being favored, and being protected enhance that sense.
I believe a state of grace is like spiritual currency that can be freely given and received. The key here is that it is free... as in “gratis”... with no strings attached and with no expectation that the gift given will be even be received, and certainly not reciprocated.
I believe a state of grace can be induced. Like fire, it can inspire and inflame from a distance. In insinuates itself into your life — many times — without your conscious knowledge.
I believe a state of grace is THE constant state of existence, and that we simply forget that because our minds want us to believe that we are separated from each other as individuals, and are, therefore separated from the source of our deepest connections with each other.
Hear now the words of David in Psalm 139:7-10
“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”
David is one of the few people in the Bible who is described as being in the presence of God, otherwise known by Christians as the Holy Spirit, whom they believe is the third person in the Godhead. They believe that the Holy Spirit is the dispenser of grace.
I experience that presence differently than most people do... haven’t heard many people describe God in cargo shorts and a halter top... but the point is I believe that God is constantly hurling gifts at us, and we can freely pass them around.
How do we do that? Well, the best way to induce a state of grace in another is to do everything you do with an intention of excellence, beauty, favor, and anonymity. Pay for some else’s coffee. Pay their toll. Write an exquisite memo – with no misspellings or grammatical errors. Install an electrical wall outlet perfectly. Praise something someone has done that they think no one else notices. Be kind to people you can’t stand being around. Linger a while longer when you look up at the sky. Be grateful. Engage the person who serves you at a restaurant – praise them for their kind attention towards you. Listen when a child talks to you. Share what you love with others – give what you love away.
There are many things you can do in one day to ease other’s burdens, to improve a situation, to contribute to an elegant solution, or to simply be receptive to grace. Give some thought to these things and make a daily practice of attaining a state of grace. You may or may not get run over by a car, but I guarantee you will lead a happier life and people around you will experience grace... even if they don’t know why!
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!