Painful grace

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We close the covers of the beautiful book, and sit and look at each other. She sighs contentedly, the deep and satisfied sigh of a 10-year-old who has just heard the story of Beauty and the Beast translated from its original French. She sighs the fairytale sigh, the one that says, “They were good, but flawed. They hoped. They experienced hardship and suffering. Evil was defeated. Beautiful lessons were learned. They lived happily ever after.”

I close my eyes. Fairytales annoy me. When I was her age, I believed the plotlines. I wasn’t at all enamored of the magic, but I held steadfastly to the belief that the good girl heroine would triumph over trials and tribulations and, sometime in her late teens or early 20s, a prince on a white horse would whisk her to ever-after. And my life went according to script. After a not-all-that-happy childhood, I married my prince when I was 21. My father gave me a fine porcelain statue of Cinderella as a wedding gift.

The following year, we welcomed a fair-haired, blue-eyed firstborn son. But of course. It’s in the script.

The year after that, I was diagnosed with cancer.

Did not see that sequel coming. Not at all.

This time, I needed more than a fairytale horse to navigate the turbulence. I needed a lifeboat. I climbed aboard a giant one with “Religion” emblazoned on her bow. She carried me well through various storms of the cancer years and then the storms of the recovery years, the ones during which I was bearing children. I thought her a sturdy and dependable ship.

The ship crashed headlong right around the time our ninth child was born. Like a young girl who learns that magic isn’t really a thing and that the horse will grow old and lame, I learned that even if the church is God’s perfect vehicle of grace, the people who comprise it are not. I can only compare this chapter in the story to the one where the heroine wanders in the woods at night and every familiar, comforting figure in the shadows shows itself to be something else entirely and hisses or bares fangs, or both. No one was to be trusted.

The ship no longer seaworthy, the heroine is shipwrecked, and one after another, bottles wash up bearing bad news from home. And this time, the heroine is neither young, nor fair. She is neither idealistic, nor romantic. She is tired. She wonders if this is a trilogy.

Probably not. It’s unlikely that a tidy ending is in the script of the third installment. Instead it is an intermission marked with an asterisk, most certainly a point of reflection. This time, there is no white horse, no sturdy boat. This time, there is only faith in the grace of God.

For so long, grace was a gentle word, the one that captured the nuanced breath of a nearly fairytale God. Now, I see that grace can be severe. I believed that the goal was to be transported from the suffering. Grace, I thought, was the intercession of a benevolent God who swept the heroine away from heartbreak. The whole point of the plot, I thought, was to get beyond the pain to the promised happiness. I learned that by the time one gets to the third episode, one is weary from the effort of pushing through to the happy ending.

Now, I see that grace is in the struggle itself. And I have been resisting grace in favor of fairytales. In the words of Flannery O’Connor, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

Vigorously resisting grace. Fighting against the suffering instead of leaning into it. Cursing the circumstances instead of confidently resting in the faith that God will use them to change me. Resisting grace.

Even still, grace found me. It was there all along. In the fairytale moments, to be sure. But also in the dark woods moments. I see it now, in hindsight, because I recognize the moments of change.

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017

@elizabethfoss