This is the second of three essays on grace. The three parts move through different aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Road to Damascus
A few years after the death of Jesus, a Jew named Saul of Tarsus, who was also a citizen of Rome, became a Christian and changed his named to Paul. Prior to his conversion, Saul persecuted the Christians. As Paul, however, he became the greatest apostle of the early church, moreso than St. Peter or the others who were with Jesus in his lifetime. Working tirelessly until his own execution at the hand of Rome, Paul established numerous churches throughout the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. Paul’s letters to these congregations provided definition for the faith and are a critical part of the Christian Bible.
Paul could not explain the change in his heart that occurred on the road to Damascus one day, when he was struck blind and heard the Lord speak to him. He had to accept this as an act of radical, unsolicited, and unreasonable beneficence. This he called the grace of God.
“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” (1 Cor 15:10)
The grace of St. Paul is a divine beneficence that is unknowable and without a cause such as we can recognize. To understand grace is to find a place in between the rigid certainty of dogma and the despair of Roquentin. With grace, we accept that good things happen for no reason that we can understand. In deeming God the author of grace in the universe, goodness is given a source and it is made relatable. Without needing to explain beneficence, one must simply accept this: You are loved, for no reason that you may know or understand. But you are loved.
Flannery O’Conner wrote stories that often dealt with the consequences of grace for proud people. They were crushed by grace. They could not bear beneficence. To a friend she wrote,
“All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.”
Let it Be
Grace presents a challenge: to live up to its goodness. This is a challenge to act freely, for one must choose to live up to the goodness one has been given, even when that goodness was given freely and with no good reason for it.
For Ruby Turpin, the protagonist of O’Connor’s story, “Revelation,” recognizing grace caused her to crash on the shoals of her own hypocrisy and bad faith. Mrs. Turpin was a well-(enough)-to-do woman in the Deep South whose Christian piety propped up her sense of racial superiority. She was self-righteous in the most ungenerous sort of way.
“If it’s one thing I am, it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!… Oh thank you, Jesus, thank you!”
The story is set in the reception room of a local doctor’s office, where Mrs. Turpin is telling all this to another woman in the room, a woman of similar class and beliefs it would seem, whose college-aged daughter, Mary Grace—a name well chosen—begins to seethe with each word out of Mrs. Turpin’s mouth. The climactic moment comes when Mary Grace finally boils over in rage and throws a book at Ruby Turpin, telling her quietly, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!” After the incident, back on her farm, Mrs. Turpin sinks into filth and despair, overcome with a sickening sense, much like Roquentin when he discovered that his world wasn’t ordered the way he’d imagined it to be. As she slops her hogs, she has a revelation of the righteous ascending to heaven with her and her husband bringing up the rear at the very end of the pack.
For Saul of Tarsus, the recognition of grace provided a reason to change for the better, to set aside violence, hatred and pride. Writing to a different friend, O’Connor commented,
“There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment.”
The nausea demanded of Roquentin that he become the sole author of his own life, but it also demanded a kind of surrender. To be author of own’s life was not a Promethean charge to become a god. Quite the contrary, this freedom was “rather like death” at first, until Roquentin realized that in this freedom he gave away precious things (his sense o right and order) in order to take up a different, ultimately more rewarding, task. This is a theme Sartre visited in later works, most notably his play, The Flies, in which freedom leads to persecution and hard choices about breaking laws or traditions in order to do the right thing.
Grace demands the humility to accept that we may neither deserve nor benefit from the goodness we receive. “There but for the grace of God go I,” as the saying runs, paraphrasing the English Protestant martyr John Bradford as he sat in jail and watched other prisoners being taken for execution.
Grace demands the humility to surrender, to “let it be.”
Notes and credits
The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/. She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful. This work is called Paul, and it is one of her many Biblical paintings that are beautiful and stunning. I have never seen these works on the canvas, up close; I have only seen them on the Web. Her use of color and muted, vague definition seaks to me and touches me. Ms. Chmakoff and I have struck up a friendship over her paintings and my writing, and that, too, is an element of grace that I am thankful for.
For the early Christians, the time of Christ through the few decades after his death was a time without reason. They believed, Paul along with them, that the world would end soon, in their very lifetime. They believed that Jesus would return to judge the living and the dead, and that all those chosen by God would be taken to heaven with him. In the face human law, persecution, the might of Rome, and the weight of the old Jewish law, Jesus’ teachings tore down all conventions and laws that had come before. Jesus remade the world for these believers, and like Perpetua and Felicity in Carthage in 203 AD, they went to heroic lengths to demonstrate their faith.
In 67 AD, Paul was beheaded by the Roman Empire, an execution given him due to his Roman citizenship, less painful and drawn out than the crucifixions of Jesus and St. Peter, or the wild animals and soldiers who killed Perpetua and Felicity in the arena. The Frontline documentary, “From Jesus to Christ,” provides a robust discussion of the historical Jesus, the early Christian Church, and St. Paul’s role in defining the church and spreading the faith across the Mediterranean world.
The first Flannery O’Connor quotation, “All my stories …” I discovered on the blog Cage Wisdom, a site dedicated to the flms of Nicholas Cage. The second Flannery O’Connor quote, “There is a moment …” is from an essay by Patrick Galloway called “The Dark Side of the Cross,” which can be found here.
St Paul’s writings are foundational to the Christian Church. Differing interpretations of Paul were used by clerics and theologians on all sides of the Reformation, though by and large it’s possible to say that Reformed Protestantism is more singularly grounded on St. Paul than on the other letter writers of the New Testament. That is to say, branches of Reformed Protestantism represent a Pauline purism, while Catholicism balances St. Paul with the other traditions evident in the early church. As I am finishing the second part of this essay on grace, I am thinking of a fourth essay on St. Paul’s grace in modern Christianity. Perhaps it will come, but for now, I leave it out of this essay on grace, because my understanding of grace is more personal (and larger than) Christian theological traditions. My references are Christian because that is what I know, but I hope the notion of an unaccounted for, unexpected, superfluous experience of beneficence is something in the human experience that can stand apart from specific religious of philosophical tradition. Indeed, gratuitous beneficence is something any culture needs to understand.
In The Flies, Sartre uses the Greek Electra myth dramatize the proposition that people freely determine their own lives through their actions. Fleeing from responsibility for one’s actions, or from the consequences of those actions, is to flee from the truth. In the story, Electra’s brother Orestes must assume must assume responsibility for killing his mother and stepfather in Electra’s defense. She is too weak to do so, but in the act of assuming responsibility Orestes becomes fully human, finally showing throwing off the chains of self-denial and self-abnegation that Zeus and the gods used to keep people compliant and quiescent. Now free, Orestes walks into the future pursued by the Furies (giant fly-like beings) who peck at him and torment him. Such is the price of freedom.