One of the great books on prayer ever written, The Cloud Of Unknowing, comes to us from fourteenth century England, written by an anonymous author, a name still unknown by scholars. The author is apparently a monk, perhaps an abbot of a monastery, most certainly a teacher of his flock, who wants to lay out a practical guide for how to begin and sustain what he calls “the work of contemplation,” the daily practice of prayer. He imagines his counsel is for everyone, not just monastics.

In the course of these rich reflections, the author makes a stunning promise, that if you are “by grace . . . enabled to engage in this work,” over time you will find yourself “suddenly transformed into graciousness.” The first note here is that prayer is a gift of grace, initiated by God, never wholly our own doing. But the other note hit me like a bombshell: Through prayer, we just might be “transformed into graciousness.”

That’s what I want to be when I grow up. I can’t imagine anything I want more, anything I need more, anything our current world needs more–than to be transformed into graciousness. In a world of so many nasty interactions, so much hatefulness spread around, so much division, isn’t this graciousness exactly what we’re looking for, yes, what we need?

We are not gracious by nature. We would describe the culture we have built as anything but gracious. We are basically selfish, ego-centered, grasping individuals, out to get all we can get for ourselves. Boorish people do this blatantly, running over others, loudly. But most of us are selfish in smoother, more subtle ways, posing as if we kindly care for others, when really we are just as out for ourselves as the boors.

What could it possibly mean, then, to be transformed, and not only that, but to be transformed into graciousness? The author of The Cloud leaves no excuse for fatalism: “Well, that’s just the way I am, I’m not going to change.” But then at some point we come to see our selfishness as ugly, unbecoming, never winsome, and deep down we desperately want to change. Graciousness, the author argues, is what we were made to become, the way things should be. We are made in God’s image, after all.

I’ve known a few people who seem transformed into graciousness. These people are not always thinking about themselves, thinking about the image they are projecting, wanting everyone to know the successes they’ve had, how bright they are, how beautiful, how wealthy, how caring. No, gracious people are poised, with a deeper self-confidence, reflective. They are often quiet people, rarely gathering attention onto themselves. They are lighter, softer, more open. They listen. They forgive. They are kind.

We do not go into prayer in order to become gracious or any of these things. That’s not the goal of prayer. The author would assert we do not pray to lower our blood pressure, sleep better at night, lose weight, feel more energy, though these things may happen. No, in prayer, our desire is to come nearer to the heart of God. We approach the utter transcendence of God through the “cloud of unknowing.” We have to admit we don’t know everything. We can’t corral God, define him. We come into his presence only by his grace, in gratitude, in profound awe. That’s when the transformation can happen.

And then the author adds something else quite wonderful: We are always “glad and joyful” to be in the company of these transformed people. “In their presence” we are “very greatly comforted in spirit and helped by grace towards God.” When we become transformed into graciousness, we actually make the world better for those around us. Maybe this kind of graciousness could begin to dissipate the nastiness that pollutes our lives in our day.

Prayer could actually become revolutionary. I’m going to bank on that. I’m going to recommit myself to this practice of prayer. Who knows what might happen?