How do you recognize God’s grace? You’ll probably feel both attraction and fear.
A Reflection for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Grace is a mystery in more ways than one. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as our “participation in the life of God” (No. 1997). When we speak of God as a mystery, we mean that God is more than our minds can comprehend. So, grace is always going to appear in our lives as something greater than we expect.
The ways of grace, God’s choices, are also mysterious. Again, the catechism says that
grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life (No. 1996).
It is not just God we cannot fathom. We also cannot explain why God chooses to enter our lives, to bestow grace, when God does. Why Abel over Cain? David over Saul? Why now and not before? Yet grace must be freely given—to us even capriciously bestowed—because God is not some sublime object that we discover in the world. God is a person: intelligent, creative and free. God decides when we will be graced.
Grace must be freely given because God is not some sublime object that we discover in the world. God is a person: intelligent, creative and free. God decides when we will be graced.
The other mystery of grace is knowing when we have encountered it. It is not that we fail to notice something as true as God entering our lives. But lacking catechesis, we may not be able to recognize what we are experiencing as the work, indeed the very presence, of God. Remember that God created all of us, baptized or not, to live and move and have our being in God. God does not wait for catechesis to act to enter our lives.
Grace is indeed a mystery, but there is light to be shed on how it can be recognized. The church father St. Gregory of Nazianzus drew attention to a curious contradiction in our encounter with grace:
My experience is somewhat akin to what children feel when they see lightening—a mixture of terror and delight: I have come at the same time to love and to fear the Spirit (Select Orations, 9.3).
The 20th-century scholar of religions, Rudolph Otto, would use that dyad as distinctive of everyone’s experience of God, a mystery so much greater than themselves, regardless of what they called it. Having studied so many religious systems, Otto said that there are two marks that tell us we are in the presence of something, someone, not ourselves: desire and fear. To use his scholarly terms, we encounter a mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
The Israelites told Moses, “Let us not again hear the voice of the Lord, our God, nor see this great fire anymore, lest we die” (Dt 18:16). St. Mark describes those who hear Jesus as “astonished,” but the Greek exepléssonto can also be translated as “struck with terror.”
We all hear the same readings. Why do they change someone’s life this week and not the week before? Why this person and not the one who lives with her?
We all hear the same readings. Why do they change someone’s life this week and not the week before? Why this person and not the one who lives with her? This mystery belongs to God. But knowing when we stand before God, when we are offered grace, is our task.
Here is a way to recognize the gift of grace. You will find yourself both attracted and afraid: Maybe I should sit down and prayerfully read a Psalm; maybe I should make that call; perhaps I should let something go. When grace is present, you will find yourself attracted and, at the same time, afraid: Am I going to sit down every day and read the Psalms? I lose my defenses if I call. Who would I be if I surrender this? Some prospects will appear to you as both frightening and fair.
The examples are endless. There are so many ways God enters our lives. Who God is and why God does as God does we cannot possibly answer. But there are two signs that we stand in the presence of God, that this moment in life, as much a part of our lives as any other, is utterly unique because we are in the presence of a mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
We are afraid and attracted. Some prospects are both fair and fearful. For the one next to us, there is nothing there. No one requires acknowledgment. Yet we know that we are, at one and the same time, both attracted and afraid of something—really, of someone.
More on this Sunday’s readings:
- Today’s Gospel reminds us we need good teachers we can trust, by Jaime L. Waters
- The (false) prophets of Facebook and Twitter are not exactly new, by the Rev. Terrance Klein (2018)