My first memory of the word grace has to do with the blessing we said each night before dinner at the family table. “Whose turn is it to say grace?” my mom or dad would ask. The one whose duty it was would solemnly begin, head bowed, hands clasped over plate: “Bless us oh Lord, and these thy gifts” the benediction would begin. As a child, that was all I understood grace to be: a prayer before eating.
The next time I encountered the word was as a student at St. Matthew’s School. During our daily religion class we were taught the tenets and rituals of Catholicism, one of which was praying the rosary. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee…” As I memorized those words, I had no idea what Mary’s grace and the prayer I said before dinner had to do with one another, and I never questioned it; that wasn’t the Catholic way. I just said the words and liked the way they made me feel, like I was a part of something important.
Many years later, I suffered a deep depression. At the insistence of my mother-in-law, I spent hours counseling with her Lutheran pastor trying to understand and move beyond the darkness. I had left the Catholic Church years before, and had latched onto Christian fundamentalism. This pastor was big on grace, the notion that God’s love and concern for us is unconditional—there is nothing we can do to earn it or destroy it. We may not recognize or accept it, but that doesn’t change it. After years of trying to be the perfect wife, perfect mother, and perfect Christian, this notion of grace refreshed my parched spirit like a mid-summer rain shower.
For years, the spiritual grace I’d found sustained me throughout a bad marriage, until, finally, it didn’t. I believed grace wouldn’t cover divorce. Sure, I could quit faking it with my husband, but I’d lose God’s love, and rightfully so, because the pain my children would undergo would be so excruciating, I wouldn’t deserve to be loved, by God or by my kids. More counseling led me to believe that God wouldn’t abandon me, and, with abundant love and support, my kids would heal from the pain of their broken family.
Just as I’d feared, my children’s sorrow manifested itself in scary, desperate ways. Walking with them through their suffering, and standing by them as they healed, was agonizing. The fact that we are now extremely close and loving is only because of the grace they bestowed upon me. Because of it, I was finally able to forgive myself, though it took years.
The experience of grace I have shared with my children has also helped me understand that the unconditional source of love I call God exists outside of church dogma. It goes back to the prayer I learned as a child about Mary being full of grace. Turns out, we’re all full of it. This I believe.