Here’s more of Stephen Dunn, once again, from my reading today. These are the opening words to a chapter titled, “The Hand Reaching Into the Crowd.”
We live in a graceless age. Accordingly the word grace (in its various parts of speech) has lost power and significance, though it is frequently used. We have our saving graces, we are graced by one’s presence, we seek to be in someone’s good graces, and sometimes we need grace periods, which instructively, are given these days more by banks than by other higher powers. A recent headline read, Still Cheaper Chicken May Grace Our Menus Soon. The word is nearly unhearable, nearly dead, in that context in which it is familiarly used rarely compel us to engage its meaning. It might be said that all much-used, debased words are looking for restoration, for revivifying contexts.
In its Latin and Old French roots the verb means either to favor or to give thanks. In Modern French it means “to pardon.” . . . The noun’s theological definition refers to God’s free and undeserved favor, at once suggestive of beneficence and selectivity. We cannot earn it; we can only hope for mercy.
When I finished writing last night, I sat down next to Ginger in the adjacent room just to be together for a few minutes before we fell asleep. Between blogging and watching basketball, I had missed who had been voted off of American Idol. She picked up the remote to find the recording. “You can just tell me,” I said.
“Oh, no,” she replied, “you have to see it.”
What followed was the surprise that Casey, one of the more talented of this year’s crop, came in last in the voting. He was then given the chance to “sing for his life,” as Ryan Seacrest called it, though he was hardly through the first verse when the judges stopped him to say they were intervening to save him from elimination. They have one “save” per season and they were ready to use it. The young man was overcome. In the flood of emotion that followed, I heard him say to the judges, “You only have one save. Why would you use it on me?”
After that, all he could say was, “Thank you.”
Tonight, I sat down to dinner with three of our godchildren (and their parents). Jasmine, who is seven, was asked to say grace. She began a series of sentences, each one beginning with “Thank you, God,” that told the story of her day: what she had done, whom she had seen, what she had eaten, all the way down to our sitting around the table and the empanadas that were waiting to be consumed. By the time she was done, all I could say was, “Thank you.”
Dunn’s discussion of grace was a lead-in to a story and a poem about the aftermath of the 1993 World Series where Mitch Williams, a pitcher for the Phillies, gave up a series ending home run. Reporters descended on him in the locker room to ask the akward and agonizing questions reporters ask in the loser’s locker rooms because it was their job. “If the were better men with better jobs,” Dunn wrote, “they would have put their arms around him, asked how they might be of help.” Then, another Phillies pitcher, Terry Mulholland, reached through the mob of mic holders, took Williams’ hand, and led him away from the assault without saying anything to anyone. “Oh,” Dunn writes in the poem, “the luxury of failing in private.” Then in the next paragraph he writes,
Christianity has given us great stories of pardon and forgiveness, in other words of moral grace, but very few stories about the symmetries and felicities of art. We are our stories, which is why it is useful to know many. The scariest people I know are the ones who avidly subscribe to one story, one version of the world.
Perhaps one sign of our graceless age is fail has come into its own. We use it as almost its own part of speech. Epic Fail. Noun, verb, adjective, adverb all rolled into one. We are all each other’s band of reporters, pushing microphones into one another’s faces demanding to know how it feels to be such a screw up. Private is an anachronism. Context is of little consequence. We are being conditioned to think of life as a sequence of YouTube videos or news segments edited to show our failures from every angle without telling the story.
Jesus met the woman at the well and they talked. She had failure written all over her. She was alone at the well because that was the least painful way for her to get through her day. Jesus listened to her story and told her some of his. When she went back into the village, she invited the people who held the microphones in her face to come back with her to the well to meet the one who had offered her grace. Her statement has always been puzzling to me. She said, “Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done,” as if that were somehow a comforting statement. I’ve often thought perhaps the gospel writers left out part of her invitation. I want it to read, “Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done and still loves me.” Dunn’s description of Terry Mulholland leading Mitch Williams out of the ring of reporters gives me knew eyes. Mulholland knew what Williams had done and knew the way to forgiveness, to grace and gratitude. Not only did he know, but he took him there by telling his own story of failure through his actions.
The point of life is not to measure up, or even to get it right. I don’t really know if life has a point anymore than a great story has A Lesson To Be Learned. Every story that moves us, that makes us more human is one of failure and forgiveness, of loss and redemption. Sometimes we are the ones who blew the game standing in the spotlight of the inquisitors. Then there are the stories where we get to take someone by the hand like Mulholland, or awaken hearts with our gratitude like Jasmine, or speak words of healing like Jesus. To be a part of those stories, we have to be paying attention.