Earning Grace

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In one of my early blogs—https://geriatricpilgrim.com/?s=Gifts—I talked about my difficulty accepting grace—which I defined as God’s gifts to us, gifts we haven’t earned, gifts we receive simply because God loves us unconditionally. Still, I wrote, looking back at the pilgrimage I’d been on since the death of my daughter, I could see any number of places where I’d received grace.

Less than a year later, just before I submitted it to the publisher, I decided to subtitle my novel, Requiem in Stones, “A novel of grief and grace.”

So you’d think I’d figured it out.

But no, I continue to wrestle with the concept of grace—where it comes from, how we get it, and especially, how we recognize it. It’s one thing to look back at my various journeys and see moments of grace, but these days, as I grow more concerned with the future, not only with my own growing decrepitude and eventual death, but also with the illnesses and deaths of those I love, I want—no, need—to know if it’s possible, and if so how, to open myself up to grace, appreciate it during, not just after the fact.

Especially since I’m still not sure what grace is.

Maybe I’m just struggling because I’m a man. “Men don’t respect anything they get for nothing…,” writes Richard Rohr in On the Threshold of Transformation, his book of daily meditations for men. But I suspect both men and women of my generation, or at least those of us raised in Puritan New England, have trouble with grace. “There’s no such thing as free lunch,” my friend Joe used to say.

And yet, at some level I know better. God/Life/the Great Intangible/my Higher power has given me any number of free lunches.

So how do I reconcile these apparently conflicting concepts? How do I decide whether grace is simply received or if it’s earned?

Or—new thought—can grace be both gift and something earned, or at least prepared for?

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As usual, when I start seeing my life as a pilgrimage, I get my answer.

Writers on pilgrimage agree that preparation for pilgrimage is an important aspect of the pilgrimage itself. “…[P]reparation no more spoils the chance for spontaneity and serendipity than discipline ruins the opportunity for genuine self-expression in sports, acting…,” writes Philip Cousineau in his classic, The Art of the Pilgrimage. Cousineau advises a balance of planned and unplanned time. He talks about reading sacred texts and myths connected to where the pilgrim is going, ritual ceremonies before leaving, meditation on the purpose of the trip, appropriate music, even a ritual meal. Most important, Cousineau says, constantly remind yourself of the purpose of your journey.

My wife Mary Lee and I have tried to follow his advise. On our pilgrimages, even short ones to retreat houses less than a hundred miles away, we try to spend the week before gathering readings, whether it’s Fred Brancato’s Ancient Wisdom and the Measure of our Days—on my “To Read” list for months—to take to the retreat house; or, when we walked St. Cuthbert’s Way, reading about St. Cuthbert and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. When we went to San Francisco, I reread Jack Kerouac’s On the Road beforehand, and his Big Sur on the way home. We have our ritual practices: increased meditation, especially on the purpose of the upcoming trip, cleaning our water bladders and back packs, buying postcards to leave at places we stay, sending our itineraries to family. We have ritual clothing: travel shirts and vests (both with lots of pockets) that we wear only on pilgrimage. Ritual meals: eating at “The Friendly Toast” in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on the way there and at “Pat’s Pizza” in Yarmouth, Maine on the way home. When we were getting ready to walk St. Cuthbert’s way, we increased our walking distances, I went to a podiatrist for orthotics, and we both saw our doctors for check-ups. When we went on a winter pilgrimage to our favorite retreat house, I bought new bindings for my snowshoes and new long underwear.

All of which, I think, helps us to be open to the unexpected, both good and bad—my back pain and the northern lights at the retreat house, the cow shit and gorgeous vistas along St. Cuthbert’s Way, the lack of buses and the plethora of great food in San Francisco—and turns a simple trip into a pilgrimage.

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But how do I prepare to be open to whatever’s around the bend in my pilgrimage into older (I’m already old) age? When I look back over the almost thirty years since my daughter died, I can see I did make preparations that helped open me to grace and healing. The thing was, I didn’t know it.

For example, one of the first things I did was to inadvertently follow Cousineau’s advice and create ritual space for ritual ceremonies. The day after Laurie’s death, I turned what had been the bedroom she stayed in when she visited us into what I called my “den,” complete with candles that I burned every night, while I wrote in my journal—both of which I still do. I read scripture, books about grief, especially about parents after the deaths of their children, and books on spirituality and prayer.

At first, my intention for all this—my “purpose for pilgrimage,” if you will—was to try to answer the question “Why?” Why did my daughter, who’d never smoked, never even ate meat, exercised, and did everything you’re supposed to do to live to be a hundred, have to die from this rare cancer at eighteen? Which led me to a confrontation with God, at least the God of my understanding: a sadistic bastard, who got His (and God was definitely a He then) kicks torturing innocent children. From there, I was introduced to Centering Prayer, which I decided was a way to hear what God had to say back to me, and from there, to a series of mentors and teachers who helped open me to grace and healing.

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One of those mentors was a sailor, and I recall her telling a group of us that she didn’t sail her boat; God did: God provided the wind and the water. What she did was learn how to use the sails and the tiller and the other stuff to maximize what God provided. Which reminds me that for much of my life (until my back said, “no more”), I worked in gardens, planting and harvesting greens, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, potatoes, peas, beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and flowers. Still, I didn’t grow the vegetables and flowers; what I did was prepare the soil, do the groundwork, and pray for the right combination of sun, rain, and temperature—all of which I had no control over.

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And maybe it’s by doing the groundwork that one “earns” grace.

If so, what can I do to ready myself for the grace that past experiences, past pilgrimages, tell me will accompany me to the nursing home, and to Riverside Cemetery where my ashes will be interred? What can I read? What rituals should I observe?

And most important, what purpose do I keep before me for whatever life I’ve got left?

One of the most haunting lines I’ve read lately is from Richard Hoffman’s new collection of poetry, Noon Until Night: “I seldom knew that I was happy.”

I don’t want to say this on my deathbed.

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