I’m no longer devout, but I grew up loving the rituals of the Catholic church: incense, holy water, rosary beads, ash. This was magic. Alchemy. A prayer turned ordinary water into a holy substance that could purify your soul, protect objects sprinkled with it, and initiate the heathen (my friends and I discovered this after a furious nun informed us that our baptismal play acting at the playground water fountain – “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” – was, in fact, valid and that our Buddhist pal was now considered forever a member of the mother church). Every Mass, the priest stood at the altar and changed bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Transubstantiation! Although, they still just tasted like cheap rosé and Styrofoam wafers. I realize my parents and teachers wanted me to know that the catalyst in these miracles was faith in the power of Jesus, but that was an unwieldy concept to grasp in my sticky little hands. I’ve been reading fairy tales since I was four years old. I understand magic.
More mysterious to me was the idea of grace. I wanted it, but I had no idea how to get it. Every day, we chanted, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” Did grace have to do with being knocked up with baby Jesus? I was not full of baby Jesus. I still had a hard time accepting that He was in my communion wafer. We also said grace before every meal. “Bless us o Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, amen.” I was never sure why we thanked God for the food instead of my harried mother who had shopped for and prepared it, though if it was really good, we would throw in a “God bless the cook” at the end, like an afterthought.
Then, there was physical grace, the kind Grace Kelly had in Rear Window. She had an effortless beauty that emanated from her perfectly waved blonde hair right down to her Mark Cross handbag, and she moved as though she were gliding through water. I was hilariously, painfully, decidedly not Grace Kelly. I remember signing up for a Liturgical Dance class in grade school, which felt like the least awful of all the required religion classes. It sure beat the hell out of scratching out endless handwritten copies of the Act of Contrition or the Nicene Creed. Liturgical Dance, in case you are wondering, is a lot of twirling and wavy, seaweed-like arm movements set to hymns. The sister instructing us watched me spin out across the polished wooden stage in my socked feet, flail wildly as I failed to regain my balance, and then topple to the floor. She took it as a deliberate affront. “Some people have no grace,” she hissed, her voice echoing in the cavernous auditorium. Her tone was hostile and disapproving, unlike my father’s when he watched me trip over the sidewalk. He exclaimed with exasperated affection, “Oh, dear. Princess Grace.” The sentiment was the same, though.
grace: noun \ˈgrās\
1) a: unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification
b: a virtue coming from God
c: a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine grace
2) a: approval, favor <stayed in his good graces>
b archaic: mercy, pardon
c: a special favor :privilege <each in his place, by right, not grace, shall rule his heritage — Rudyard Kipling>
d: disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency
e: a temporary exemption :reprieve
3) a : a charming or attractive trait or characteristic
b : a pleasing appearance or effect : charm <all the grace of youth — John Buchan>
c : ease and suppleness of movement or bearing
How, then, to acquire it?
Prayer and sacrifice did not work, I figured because I didn’t do them properly. Relationships did not work. Hypnotism, past life regression, meditation, and dieting did not work. Parenthood did not work. I was not full. I was not buoyant. I was not transformed. I was waiting for the magic gift to be given, forever watching the horizon for a sign of its appearance.
It never materialized. I remained confused and wistful. Slowly, inevitably, I cracked open like a boulder eroded by the steady, relentless flow of water, breaking under the weight of doubt, inadequacy, resentment, and yearning. As I picked through the rubble, I found this realization gleaming in the pebbly dust: grace could not come into me. I could not ingest it like sacramental wine. It was already there. It did not need to be summoned with magic words or earned through good deeds. All grace wanted was to be acknowledged. Who was I not to pursue happiness?
I wake up every day full of fear and hope and the willingness to fuck up. This is grace. I am learning to ask for help and to run, in my clumsy, bumble-footed way, full speed toward my passions. This is grace. I say no to what doesn’t serve me and yes to pretty much everything else. This is grace. I am uncurling my sweaty fingers, one by one, from around the shame I carry, which is as unmerited as a divine blessing. This is grace.