Is Grace a Good Thing?

When I visited Flannery O’Connor’s home in Milledgeville Georgia a couple of weeks ago, I bought a book that the folks at Andalusia had just published: a collection of interviews with people who knew Flannery, and who sat on the front porch of her home with her, to visit from time to time.  Flannery died of lupus, in 1984, at age 39.  Her contemporaries are now in their 80s, so the book is a good way to preserve some first-person stories of her.

This morning, I was arrested by a sentence in the interview with her friend, Marion Montgomery.  He was talking about how Flannery was forced to return to her little hometown to live with her mother, because of her illness.  As it turns out, during the last 11 years of her life, she was incredibly productive.  She wrote some of the most distinctive and thought-provoking fiction of the 20th century.  And her inspiration came from her life in Milledgeville and at the farm, Andalusia.  Montgomery said, “So when she finally had to come back, I think she very probably thought of her lupus as somehow an act of grace.”

Wow.  Can lupus be grace?

Is grace a good thing?

I remembered another clue, from one of Flannery’s letters to Cecil Dawkins,* where she wrote: “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

I recall what I have heard and read a number of times: that, in each one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories and novels the plot turns on whether the main character receives grace when s/he encounters it.  As I have read and re-read the stories and novels, I have always sagely nodded my head to myself: “Yes.  I see that.”  But here’s what I think.  I think I have been sanitizing the concept of grace.  There is grace in lupus.  There was grace in my near-death from histoplasmosis.  There is grace in the painful changes Flannery O’Connor’s characters are forced to make when their facades or personas crumble.  There is grace in all of that.  And grace becomes a good thing if we respond to such life events by becoming who God has created us to be: who we are genuinely; not who we think we should be.

I think it’s terribly hard to be genuine, to be comfortable with who we really are (rather than who we think we should be).  I think we live and act and make decisions motivated by “shoulds.”  Grace (if these musings are on the right track) breaks down the false self I’ve constructed out of all those “shoulds.”

What anxiety that creates!  Grace does not feel like a good thing!

But what if I can continue on the journey through the anxiety, and let go of that false self, and become comfortable with the person God created me to be?  Think of the energy and joy I would feel!  What a good thing grace would turn out to be!


* Cecil Dawkins is also interviewed in the book, At Home With Flannery O’Connor: An Oral History

About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine loves being a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!

3 thoughts on “Is Grace a Good Thing?

  • Dwayne W.

    Interesting observations on grace, Andy. No doubt grace apprehended in difficult circumstances is grace magnified and understood and appreciated and celebrated even when death is imminent as it was for Flannery. My question is the old theodicy question. What about when there is no grace? When there is only suffering and death? Why does God choose to grant you grace in your illness and to the 11-year-old boy in Syria who pretended to be dead and covered himself in his brother’s blood so he would not be killed with his entire family, there seems to be no grace? And certainly no grace for his brother hacked to death by Asaad’s goons. I see too much of pointless suffering and gracelessness in TZ. I wonder about this caprecious grace. This leaves only Kiergaard’s leap of faith, a widening chasm as I grow older that is more and more difficult to cross.

    • pastorab Post author

      Yes, difficult and necessary questions. My own “leap of faith” is to think that God is active even in the most horrific situations, somehow; even though I can’t comprehend how; and firmly resist any suggestion that God causes evil and suffering.

  • Paula A.

    Interesting thoughts, Andy. I was reminded of my mother’s cancer–a very long, slow, painful death that was horrible for her to experience and nearly as bad for us to watch. For my stepfather, who was her caregiver for those seven years, it was the final straw that broke any residual belief that he had in God. We recently talked about it and he said point blank that he just couldn’t accept the concept of a beneficent diety that would allow one of his creatures to suffer that acutely for so long. But for me, at least, if not for the rest of my siblings, watching my stepfather’s compassion and servanthood in taking such good care of my mom was a tremendous witness. So is grace just the silver lining that we take away from really aweful situations? For my stepfather, there was no silver lining, just many long years of anguish. For me, the grace was knowing that he was there to take care of her when I was not in a position to do so (logistically, financially, geographically, etc.) or even if I had been able to do so, that it wouldn’t have offered her the same degree of comfort. Somehow the idea of grace coming sideways, hitting the bystanders but not the people most affected by tragedy, feels wrong to me.

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