“There but for the grace of God...”

Gifts come in all shapes, sizes and forms. Some delight in the kind that comes in brown paper packages tied up with string.

In an address in 2004, Barack Obama had something to say on the subject. “Hope in the face of adversity, the audacity of Hope: in the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us...” he opined. Well, it doesn’t come wrapped in brown paper but I agree that in a troubled world where the darkness of despair can sometimes descend, Hope is most important. Among gifts of the non-material kind, I, too, would rate it highly. As a person believing in a ‘forever’ marriage, as a traveller on the eternal journey, as a parent who cares deeply about his children’s future...yes, Hope is always in my focus. Being without Hope would, for me, constitute mere existence − but is Hope God’s greatest gift?

Over a thousand years ago, Persian poet-astronomer, Omar Khayyam, gave thanks for his “jug of wine” and “loaf of bread”. Beyond that he bequeathed us these extraordinary lines:

                                                “I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
                                                Some letter of that After-life to spell:
                                                And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
                                                And answer’d ‘I Myself am Heav’n and Hell’.”

I look upon these words as a precious gift for, like all writers with insights to share, he is talking to us about that essential yearning we still retain − about our potential to act for both good and evil; that wanting to know what is on the other side. His sharing is a gift because it re-affirms the ‘normality’ of our human imperfections...our very mortality. ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ as states of mind – so very today! I recall reading something of the sort in a book by Cardinal Ratzinger (later, Pope Benedict XVI). Yes, the idea of setting aside time for introspection is special, a gift, but is it greater than Hope?

 In St John’s Gospel, more is said on the subject. In the account of the woman caught in adultery, the idea of self-examination implicitly unfolds. An adulteress had been seized by a mob in Jerusalem and was about to be stoned to death. Intervening, Jesus invited anyone in the crowd who was without sin to cast the first stone. One by one, as the kneeling Jesus scribed circles in the dust, the accusers let the stones fall from their hands and silently drifted away. Jesus had caused them to seek within themselves and the truth they found there was confronting, then debilitating, because it threw their hypocrisy into high relief. Stripped by this self-appraisal of all illusions, falsehoods and pretensions, each was left clothed only in naked shame. The kernel of this lesson, pointing towards our vital need for honest introspection, is indeed a great gift.

Then, in chapter 20 of St John’s Gospel when the risen Lord appeared to his disciples, another gift is disclosed.

                                                “...he breathed on them and said,
                                                ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.
                                                for those whose sins you forgive,
                                                they are forgiven;
                                                for those whose sins you retain,
                                                they are retained.’”

In Christ’s final instruction to his disciples they were exhorted to forgive, to show mercy. But something crucial lies here: those who would commit to this vocation do so because they have already been blessed by God with an indispensible gift, not peace or love or the ability to work miracles, but free will!

Every person has been imbued with free will. Each has the choice when affronted by another to choose to react in numerous ways, from seeking to exact “an eye for an eye” to forgiving unconditionally. What an onus! Many times, sadly, I have not fulfilled the task of forgiving because I have been too tardy in first emptying myself of feelings of hurt or outrage − which is to say, I’ve neglected to first squash my own selfishness and false pride. That can happen only when I can do such things as experience, if vicariously, a hope-filled Indigenous man’s humiliation and feel his sweat prickling my own brow. Only when I picture the internal tug-of-war of the angel-beast that is my potential. Only when I quiver with those same violent impulses of that mob with killing-stones in hand...only then that transformation might begin.

Forgiveness of those who have wronged me must be preceded by my forgiving myself! And that might be attempted only after I have confronted my own claiming of moral high ground and acting as if sinless − flying in the very face of God! I have been gifted the free will to see myself as no different from my enemy and then, in recognising that we two are really one, to forgive... to try and sometimes fail...and try again...because my will allows it... My free will to say, “There but for the grace of God...”

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John Murray

John is a member of the Aurora Editorial Team.

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