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Finding grace, even in the shadow of the cross

I’ve been in desperate need of some grace these days. So much so, that I pulled a tarnished silver necklace bearing the word “GRACE” out of my jewelry box and looked up a DIY silver cleaning recipe that verged on chemistry experiment to polish it up. It was as if that tangible, visible sign of grace hanging from around my neck might get me the real deal, or at least a little closer to it.

Grace is one of those elusive things. We kind of get it in an indefinable sort of way, and yet it can be so hard to grasp, like trying to catch a cloud. We know we need grace to get through this life, to get through this day, but it can be easy to miss, even when it’s right there in front of us. We have to want it and watch for it. But how do you watch for something when you’re not quite sure what you should be looking for?

Back when I was writing “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Catholic Catechism,” I struggled to define grace in a way that would make sense to people, especially people who may have never contemplated that word or what it might mean in their lives. To make matters worse, we Catholics get into categorizing kinds of grace: sanctifying or deifying, habitual, sacramental, and even special graces and states of grace. If we’re not careful, we can begin to believe that grace is so complex and lofty it’s off limits to just-struggling-to-get-through-every-day kind of people. The reality is, it’s ours for the taking.

Grace is a gift we get for no other reason than simply showing up in this life and turning toward God. The catechism defines grace as the “free and undeserved help that God gives us.” Or, to put it another way—with a rock-star spin: “What once was hurt, what once was friction, what left a mark, no longer stings. Because grace makes beauty out of ugly things. Grace finds beauty in everything. Grace finds goodness in everything.” That’s a line from the U2 song “Grace,” and it really is a perfect description— so simple and yet so beautiful, like that silver necklace sent years ago by a long-distance friend, and which now hangs from my neck once again.

My friend Cathy A., whom I have never met in person, had become such a close virtual friend, a soul sister, really, that she knew instinctively when I needed some grace, even if it had to be mailed directly to my house in a padded envelope. That’s how grace works—not literally, but spiritually—arriving when we least expect it, in surprising packages, from far-off places or maybe from right next door. It’s there, if we keep our hearts open, coming at us from all directions, lifting us up and carrying us forward.

Grace does not punish or seek an eye for an eye. Grace does not exist in a what-goes-around-comes-around reality. Grace supersedes all of those human constraints and goes straight for the heart. Grace heals, grace saves, grace loves—always.

As we journey through these last days of Holy Week, we know all too well that we must go through absolute darkness and desperation to get to the ultimate light and salvation of Easter. But even in darkness there is grace, maybe especially in darkness. Even in the cross of Good Friday, even in the cross that casts a shadow across your life today, whatever it may be.

Before I wrapped up this column, I signed on to Twitter and saw this tweet from Pope Francis: “If we learn to read everything in light of the Holy Spirit, we realize that everything is grace!” Maybe grace isn’t so elusive after all. Maybe it’s right there in front of you. Grab it now before it slips away.

This column first appeared in the April 13, 2017, issue of Catholic New York.

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