What Does It Mean To Be Struck By Grace?

Rembrandt Prodigal SonI feel like I was struck by grace this past week. Two reflections, by two writers, hit me at just the right, though unexpected, moment. Both are about how God visits us with grace from time to time, leaving us with little to say, but grateful. We come away feeling reclaimed, lifted up, pulled out of ourselves, struck.

First, a dear friend sent me an article last week by Henri Nouwen called “Forgiveness: The Name Of Love In A Wounded World.” Nouwen found himself reflecting “whether there was a single, simple word that might address the deep yearning of contemporary men and women for hope, trust, love, and a vision larger than their own changing perspectives.” I was eager to hear what that word might be.

Nouwen discovered that word while reading the Gospel of Mark, the report of that moment when a voice came from heaven saying to Jesus “you are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you.” You are beloved, yes, that’s the word, says Nouwen: “’You are my Beloved’ are words spoken to us as well, even as we move through the crowds of our great urban centers and huge suburban shopping malls.” This is the voice of unexpected grace. We feel suddenly straightened up, rebalanced, refreshed, made whole again.

But it is not an easy voice to hear, says Nouwen, “in a world filled with voices that shout: ‘You are no good; you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable; you are nobody—unless you can demonstrate the opposite.” These other contrary voices demand strenuous effort before we can measure up. We get caught up in the “trap of self-rejection.” When we find ourselves in that shape, we must remember that “being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.” This essential starting point opens up possibilities of forgiveness and love and community and freedom. Everything else falls into place from that core. 

At the same time I was reading the Nouwen article, coincidentally, I ran into part of a passage (quoted in a David Brooks column) from the mid-twentieth century theologian-philosopher Paul Tillich. I should acknowledge that Tillich was never the darling of the whole Christian community. His theology was often controversial, and as well, he sometimes did not lead an exemplary life. Nevertheless, this sermon, written in 1949, talks about grace in ways that are startling and fresh for our time.

“Do we know what it means to be struck by grace?” he asks. Let me quote at length.

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.” (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, published in 1948).

I often marvel that sometimes we hear voices of grace through our reading. At least I do. At times these voices of grace come to us unexpectantly like a wave of light breaking into darkness. These two reflections last week penetrated my own darkness of the moment: You are beloved, you are accepted, can you believe it? You are actually free from the striving and the rejection and the yearning to measure up! Free then to turn the tables upside-down and give to others love and forgiveness. This is the freedom we get when grace strikes. We are left with nothing but gratitude for this gift of grace.