Defining Grace

Defining Grace

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Defining Grace

The Dictionary of the Accademia della Crusca, dating from 16th century Italy, defines grace as "belleza... che rapisce altrui ad amore." Grace is beauty which seduces one unto love. Grace is the prayer before nourishment, it is the passing of power through blood, it is a classical muse, it is a verb, it is liberation, it is a head-ransom, it is a gazelle, it is simplicity, it is complexity, it is sanctifying, it is controversial, it is desired, it is metrical, it is ubiquitous, it is rare, it is actual. "Grace is in all, yet beyond all," quotes a medieval anchoress. According to Castiglione, grace springs from "that virtue opposite to affectation," as an unconscious extension of a certain je ne sais quoi within the soul. Grace is the nature of language, of number, of beat, of silence. Grace is pervasively elusive.

Grace is fueled by its own roots in the Greek charis, with its shadows of liberality and courtesy forwarded to Latin rhetoric, as the tripartite gratia, functioning as attractiveness, favour, and gratitude. The word flushed the face of Europe in its own blushing migration from tongue to tongue, from Italian gratia to Portuguese graça to Spanish gracia to French grâce. Gliding from thought to pen to heritage, grace seeped over the Channel into Chaucer's father's smalltalk and a pair of listening ears waxed attentive. The patients of his Doctor's Tale questioned, "Goode fader shal I dye? Is ther no grace? is ther no remedye?" Grace is the ripping of change through the fabric of time, loosing the weave to weft in bright, unwashed strands of witty innovation. "Is not great grace to helpe him over past, Or free his feet that in the myre sticke fast?" beats the iambic pentameter of the Spenserian stanza in the Faerie Queene. Is it not grace that proved the continuance of its own existence, a linguistic parallel intertwining with the branches of biologic generations to produce the graciousness of freedom in both the fruits of the opposable thumb and the serpent's apple?

A rugged, mottled bark of genealogy stretches gracefully into the blue sky of infinity. Grace, the present of the future, the gift of tomorrow, the cornerstone of the past, vaults us forward into the lives of our progeny and the evolution of our species. Born from the randomly graced confluence of organic chemicals in small pockets of lipid bilayers, life sparked and sputtered.

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With the nudge of grace our DNA twisted itself into the consummate grace of the double-helix and spontaneously, suddenly, beautifully, gracefully, our lifeline burst into the incandescence that is our intelligence. Then, in series of wild conflagrations and ice smotherings and waves of floods, lineage curved and spiraled in that fluid grace of succession and survival. This is the grace of an ancestry of impregnable driving power and unfolding authority: as Dryden wrote in an epistle of 1693, "All below is strength, and all above is grace." The Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was convinced that this force of survival is not through instinct, but through the grace of God. Or is it grace that inspires instinct and instinct that in turn transcribes grace into biological reality?

Grace is the effluence of flesh. As a movement, fluid, ineffable, slight, and unremarkable in its perfectness, it jettisons itself through actin and myosin filaments in synchronized strokes of power, in lenient generosity towards humans' bony awkwardness and proclivity for tryptophan. Grace is the delicate pressure equilibrium which allows the tympanic eardrum to vibrate at the rustle of leaves. An ear pressed to a chest witnesses the thundering, delicate dance of blood coursing vena cava, atrium, ventricle, artery, lung, atrium, ventricle, aorta, a pulsing river in invisible tributaries, branched rivulets woven into the mesh of capillaries. When the skin fissures and our eyes jump at the sight of our own life-force so red and naked, fibrin gracefully turns to fibrinogen and platelet plugs plug and we are left with either the disgrace of a rough scab or the saving grace of a hemophiliac. Grace lubricates existence and smoothes it into essence. Silken locks of cytosine and guanine, thymine and adenine write our blueprints, constructing our faces mathematical and symmetrical, our limbs nimble and limber, our complete frame pliant, supple, and "formed with such harmonious grace," as Dryden observes. Grace ignites synaptic knobs into lightning flashes of salty intelligence, sending our consciousness up from the depths of soul and through spine and fingers and lips and eyes. This is so instantaneous that the very thought of grace catapulted into being falls fatally short in comprehending its chemical cosmology. We are so wrapped in it, that we become rapt in it, then our mind fumbles, the electric action potential stubs its toe, and suddenly it is the ungrace of self-obsession that is our undoing.

Grace is the swirl of physical symmetry. pi, e, i: The unknowable numbers whose incalculable sinews stretch shadowless into infinity: the scribbles which possess the grace of endless perfection which in turn slips from our firing neuron's reach. Mathematics reigns as a fluid, internally flawless system, hinging upon the sudden swing of a proof from an unfathomable concept to a shockingly simple equation. Grace is the inertia twinkling in the eye of the man in the moon. The numerical symmetry of Newtonian physics, Avagadro's number, Sir Gawain's pentangle, the Trinity, the Pythagorean Theorem, or Pynchon's Entropy is the graceful symmetry of the milky universe. Laws of the conservation of energy and mass dictate that all change amounts to nothing, to that eternal circle that is zero and its gaping black hole of possibility. New theories wear uncomfortably, itching the backs of sparking minds until the physical clinches the mathematical and graces each side of the equal sign with consummate balance. Grace only derails into chaos when the tracks have not been laid; the inconsistencies suggested by Gšdel's incompleteness theorem are merely the untasted truths of the future. "Is there in truth no beauty?" Herbert questioned in 1633. The beauty of truth is the unquestionable stark radiance of cold fusion, the curve of the nautilus shell, diatonic scales, parametrics and the incomprehensible elegance of superstring theory. Grace fuels the fractal engines of binary code which forge into the effervescent frontier of the digital, proving that only numerical grace under pressure survives any supernova proof.

Art is the emotion of grace set in the matrix of reality. Grace functions as a complex palimpsest of aesthetic inspiration whose sole motive is to deny the undeniable static reality of art. Life's electric energy is consistently graceful to the artist: movement touches us by means of chiaroscuro, hue, perspective, the stringed mobile, the empty spaces of Moore's sculpture. "Grace, indeed, is beauty in action," Disraeli asserts in 1844. It is swimming in ink, gliding through the oils. It is settling within the melting medieval stained glass. Grace is liquid disguised as solid, never distilled. One artist, in his 1753 Analysis of Beauty, proclaims that "there is only one precise serpentine line that I call the line of grace." Precision begets grace's progeny, ensuring detail's snare for the unsuspecting sketcher. It is "the nice touches, which give the best resemblences, and make the grace of the picture," Dryden proclaims. It is Passat's pointed grace of babes in arms. It is the Tsunami's loosed droplets. It is the miyabi, the courtly beauty, and the furyu, the elegance, of Genji's gilded scrolls. For the post-modernists, for the starving artist, for those one-color capacity canvases, for the angst-ridden urban studio-lover lover, it is a simple duality birthed by Golding in 1587: "Without the blacke, the white could haue no grace." Ballerinas stretch, ache, binge, purge, bleed, bow to grace; Degas dreamt, awoke, breathed, and sacrificed his brush to those girls' grace. 17th century Italians were convinced of the supremacy of grace "as opposed to mere beauty, as an artistic ideal, along with facilitia - speed and ease of execution, technical effortlessness. Grazia was not to be confused with the serious and sublime in art, but rather connected with sweetness and softness, dolcezza, morbidezza. It was a natural gift." Natural like falling water, like Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water and its cragged grace, like Ayn Rand's skylines and Guggenheim's glow-worm vivacity. Yet photographs capture only that 1/500 of a second; a watercolor only the wetness of bright finely-ground minerals; a classical bust only a vacant sight of heroism; a film noir the penumbral shades within the camera's pupil. Perhaps the passion in the picture is actually a fine, iridescent tissue layer of grace cast by the viewer's gaze. Art is a permanence of fleeting grace - an exhibition truly an inquisition of mono-no-aware, the beauty of evanescence - a favorite painting merely the snatching of "a grace beyond the reach of art," in Pope's words. In Reid's simple truth of 1785: "The last and noblest part of beauty is grace."

Rooted deep in numerical lace and aural delight, music's grace branches into spontaneity. It is inevitably unpredictable because it employs the medium of the unforeseeable future. Grace, however, reins in music's power, drawing it tight and pulsing, heaving and gasping in the fettered freedom of unsullied mathematical theory. The fractal'd grace of the mind finds form in Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Bach's organ preludes, Phish's jams, lazy Sunday afternoon vocalizing during perfunctory chores, "all melodies graced with a number of wild, complicated, and beautiful variations," as Scott wrote in 1832. Improvisation drips from a well of romance, melancholy, homesickness, grief, gathering speed from the cliff of soul down into an ocean of sound. Gershwin, Verdi, Purcell and Rachmaninov all step right foot first onto spiral escalator circle of fifths, dipping their feet into the liminality and fluidity of dominant, sub-dominant, augmented, diminished, sustained, major, minor chords, all stayed by the hidden, sweeping beam of grace.

Grace is the ink flowing from our stream of thought, gushing gracefully over Solomon's leap of morality, the edge of King David's tongue, the cliff of Ginsberg's sanity. Swirling, gurgling, boiling, writing has propelled consciousness away from awkward darkness and into the grace of knowledge; it is the driving wave of realization and the will to dive deeper, dive deeper in time. Our inner gracefulness is unveiled on undiscovered shores of syntax and diction, while the grace of calligraphy and script is unrolled onto swaths of virgin paper. The elegance of oral inheritance, the corselet of sound-bound folk, frees the grace of speech. "It is a common grace of some, to vse some words or sentences of scripture insteed of iests and prouerbs in their common talke," as one rhetorician advised in 1607. That commonality of the spoken word possesses a subsuming grace in its eternal ubiquity. A mind conjures a desire: it is expressed as emotion, transcribed into mood, declined into case, counted into number, conjugated into tense, and revealed in form. Poetic virtuosity is aroused in the pulsing of trochee, spondees, choriambs, dactyls and the graceful caress of alliteration and onomatopoeia. Language evolves in the lips of unborn children, sprung from the speech of invisible ancestors, miming nth generational poetry, spinning the cradle of the bloodline. Anne Frank's snuffed inheritance flourishes; the cold isolation of Salinger burns bright in hearts; Dickinson's quietude roars on its pages. It is the grace of iambic pentameter fluming forth from matriarchs' washing songs, priests' elegies, warriors' thunderclouds, and children's' lullabies. From end-rime linked caesura to blank verse and sonnet and the jolt of Joyce prose, writing lubricates cultural evolution and enables humanity to be graceful - and then to recognize and cherish its graceful reflection in the matte mirror of paper.

Waves of violence are swept over by the smoothing fingers of God's hand to bring quietness, focus and grace to the stumbling beginnings of the Bible. The word grace is a combination of the Hebrew word chen meaning grace or favor plus the word chesed meaning loyal love and kindness. Genesis is a humiliating, self-perpetuating cycle through clouds of grace which hover and comfort and then dissipate, leaving humanity's soul raw, frostbitten and crude. Created by the breath of God, Adam and Eve yearn to grasp this invisible grace for themselves, to capture "sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day" (Gen 3:8). Milton's Eve of his 1667 Paradise Lost proclaims in all her oblivious cunning that "I who first brought death on all, am graced The source of life." In their blissful ignorance they only see that the divinely designed crimson curves of the apple are "a delight to the eyes" (Gen. 3:6); they are blind to the grace of unthinking nakedness, the grace of casual conversation with God, the grace of sweatless summer days; the grace of seamless snakeskin. But a second chance: fallen from grace, Noah finds favor with the Lord - from the abyss of God's regret and sadness over his degenerating creation rises this loyal love of grace, chesed from the deep, the soft fall of graceful, immortal footsteps sounding quietly behind old Noah walking through his dreams. The grace of the future is an undeserved favor. Grace is the precious translucence of a rainbow which first greedily urges us to its slippery end; then, softly and firmly, commands us to stand rooted to our past in awe at the bow of Adonai, a sign which reminds Him (because sometimes He must try to forget) of the everlasting covenant between Him and us and "every living creature among all flesh (Gen 9:15). Grace is the promise of continuity.

To dip into Christian grace is to be pulled into a vortex of centuries of controversy, zeal, miracles and desperation. Paul, the man whose eyes were once covered in scales, spoke of the Greek charis and began with one small word the legacy of Jesus' messianic presence according to the scripture. The eternal grace of God's looming shadow was amended to include the grace of the moment, the spirit of Jesus alive in a Christian, as it says in Romans 5:1-2, "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand." The brute strength of God's creation and the survival of the fittest believers is sanded and sculpted into the body of Christ, the generous saving gift of God and the foundation of grace and of all graces, or charisms. From the New Testament onward, Jesus Christ is grace objectified, "and in and after him the worlds of creation, time, and human personality have been radically (if invisibly) altered," writes Martin Collcutts. It is the kindness, the charisma, of God that while we are inexorably bound to death, Christ's death gives us "eternal life in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:23). This messiah of the Gospels rediscovers a lost flesh and blood intimacy with God, a face closer to our true selves than our own image. "Christians are not passive," asserts Collcutts, because they are empowered by the charismata of the Holy Spirit, made courtiers to the ghosts of their salvation, willing servants to the belief that "it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved" (Acts 15:11). In 529 A.D., the Council of Orange dictated in Canon 6 that If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). Grace was glimpsed in the water of baptism, in the austerity of a monastic cell, in the chanting of the mystics and the stillness of the temple. For the first thousand years after the death of Jesus, the East saw the beauty of God in the theology of a trinitarian, divining grace renewed by Christ. For the monastics, grace was the "seed or enabler of a God-bestowed contemplative outlook which, as it intensified, fostered apophatic faith in touch with the darknes of the divine essence," as says the thought of Origen. Augustine, in the West, focused on the need for grace to heal the pervasive infection of evil in human beings. The Trinity was paralleled by Augustine's triangle of grace, freedom, and evil, a conception which brought grace into view as a nebulous entity of divine promise and delicate power: an intangible intermediary to both follow and forge ahead of humanity on its dusky path. In the thirteenth century, Thomas of Aquinas "defended the natural potentialities of the human personality to do their work - to know the truth, to seek the good." It was the ground of mankind's will, and not the image of God in our visage, which bore the permanent scars of the Fall.

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church, proclaimed that the dictatorship and dogma of the Roman Catholic church had a monopoly over grace, and launched all of Europe into the battlefield of the Reformation. While Luther maintained that an initial justifying grace founded all Christian life, Calvin saw God's sovereignty as manifested in the divine transcendent plan for a very few chosen lives, the "elect." In the seventeenth century, the Jesuits interwove the modes of "created grace," or the concept of God as the embodiment of human transformation, with the cooperation of human effort. During the Enlightenment, the popular thought was that education, not the divine nudge of grace, was the only requisite vehicle for pursuing the good. For Paul Tillich of the post-World War I school of theology, the very presence of God rather than the mechanics of God was the true composition of grace. God's presence was imbued into every facet of existence; the creation of human life was a theonomous palimpsest on whose bottom layer could be seen the autograph of God. Transparent to the divine, the marks of grace on our world were God's fingerprints. Tillich, his Roman Catholic counterpart Karl Rahner, and the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin all revel in the twentieth-century shift of grace to the comprehensive, historical perspective. Grace became for them not just a spark of lightning from the heavens down to fallen man but an infinitely expanding timeline. With the birth of Big Brother and chain stores and media's idle hand, the twenty-first century viewed grace as the axis along which "the kingdom of God confronts institutionalized evil," observes Collcutt. And we escape the battle of time by rushing headlong into the new millennium, an amorphous space in history where technology can erase our indelible scars and tell us in simulated sinuous human voices how intelligence is power, power is divine, and divinity is anonymity.

Grace resists containment and creates the container - and then dissolves it from under the corrosive weight of our ignorance. Grace is less a consideration and more a motion, a magnetism: Lithgow declares "The flying from evil, is a flying to grace" in 1632, just as in Dylan Thomas' Fernhill "the children green and golden / Follow him out of grace." Yet it is Time that is followed, when later "Time held me green and dying/ Though I sang in my chains like the sea," and the fresh unplucked stalks of youth are captured, suddenly graceless. Grace is confusing: "that Time that gave doth now his gift confound" of which Shakespeare writes in sonnet #60 is a puzzling, discomfiting, disturbing engine of our existence. To whom is grace given if it dissipates in the graceful passing of each minute, "hastening toward its end"? Where is the favour of ancient Roman lovesong? Who can wear with grace the technicolor coat of God's forgiveness and promise and sacrifice and shame? Where is the grace of sinew and tendon and quark and lilting waltz in our age of cancerous technicalities? Does each yearning moment fall from its own fleeting plateau of grace so that its successor is suspended in suspense? Can we re-imagine a tangible grace, a sticky grace that does not slip through fingertips like the years that smoothed steep to stone to sand? Or is it too late: our earth becomes a grave for the graceful, a walking nightmare for the disgraceful, those marked to roam and wander unsettled, an earth teeming with cragged cliffs which beg us to test our grace of mortality and to leap, headlong, righteous in our presumption of breath and vigor.

There exists no ungrace, only disgrace: humans are exclusively allowed a distancing from it, a fall away, a drop from, a move aside, a step back, a notch below what they once had. Its opposite implies the continued, urging reality of a grace which presses us into service. This is a blindingly bright reality, and the eyes of mankind widen and crease in joy at the possibility to re-invent grace, to re-discover grace, to re-define grace, to re-acquaint grace, to rejuvenate grace, to become grace's organic equivalent. The grace of the past, of the pastoral, of the prelapsarian landscape, of yesterday's cloudscape and tonight's purple sunset all forecast an unbroken horizon of the unwieldy unknown.
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