20 April 2011

Graceful Work

"Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first."

"Shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works."

When are we Christians ever going to stop forgetting?

The Grace, the graciousness, hospitality, generosity, mercy - the sheer profligate abundance - of God: these things aren't substitutes of an outwardly virtuous life, or compensations for its absence. The grace of God doesn't let us "off the hook" of being virtuous. If anything (if I may be allowed to stretch a metaphor) it fastens the hooks on which we're hanging all the more securely to the Fisherman's line.

Grace is not what makes a good life unnecessary and redundant. Rather it is what makes such goodness as we have more graceful than grim; able to listen as well as speak; attentive rather than merely attention-seeking; forgiving and not just forgetting. Grace is what makes humane virtue not just a possibility, but an impregnability. And the way Grace makes our virtues impregnable is by planting itself beneath us, so to speak, and rooting us in the joy of God. As opposed to mounting itself high above us - as our own graceless, joyless virtue is so often apt to do - and then sneering and scowling at us.

Indeed it often helps for me to think of Divine grace as being the express opposite of anything "proud." And here I use the word as I believe it's most commonly used by the Hebrew poets and proverb-collectors: - to denote something boastful, vaunting, "high"-minded, and above all conscious of its greatness and exaltation. Whereas, far from being like those high-and-dry clouds which the "tree-tops" of our virtue can never reach, the graciousness of God is the one thing both lowly enough to be the soil of our good works, and fertile enough to push them upwards, to ever-greater, more inconceivable heights. Besides being the one ground secure enough to anchor that most unexpected of all trees, the Cross.

I'm not saying God's grace is the only soil of our human virtue. It is merely the one soil that isn't just so much dust, clay and ashes: the one ground, rain-sweet, alive with mist, and swarming with all manner of living things, that actually leaves us better on account of our virtue than we were before, and not worse. And I believe that's something far more than any mere human virtue has ever managed to do.

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