as preached at the First Religious Society of Carlisle, January 12, 2014
This morning I want to begin with a story. It comes from Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” The book, as you might remember, centers around the former convict Jean Valjean and his struggle to lead both a good life and remain free from prison. One of the major themes of the book is redemption and transformation. Towards the beginning of the novel Jean Valjean has an experience that allows him to transform his life from that of an outcast, a former convict, to a man of wealth.
Shortly after he is released from prison Jean Valjean travels to a small town looking for lodging. He has a passport with him that declares him to be a former convict. As a result, no one will give him food or a place to sleep. No one, that is, except for the local Bishop. The Bishop takes him in, gives him food and a bed to sleep in. In the middle of the night Valjean repays the Bishop by stealing his family silver.
Early the next morning the police catch Valjean as he slinks out of town. They ask him about the silver he is carrying. He claims that the Bishop gave it to him as a gift. The police take Valjean to the Bishop for questioning. When the Bishop sees Valjean, he confirms his story. The Bishop even goes so far to tell Valjean that he forgot to take a pair of silver candlesticks with him. These were the only items of value that Valjean had not stolen from the Bishop’s household. Before Valjean leaves, the Bishop takes him aside. I will let Hugo describe their final exchange:
“The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice:–
“Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.”
Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them.
He resumed with solemnity:–
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
The Bishop’s gift of silver to Jean Valjean was a form of grace. Grace is an unexpected and undeserved gift that transforms us, even if only for a moment. Grace is not something that we earn or create for ourselves. We can only receive it and try to give it to others.
The story of a thief who steals something from a holy man is an archetypal one. It occurs in many cultures. This morning I want to use it to explore different aspects and kinds of grace. In the version of the story found in “Les Miserables,” grace is something that one human being gives to another. It is not supernatural but natural.
After the gift of the Bishop’s silver, Valjean becomes a sort of holy man himself. He saves lives, brings up an orphan and ultimately tries to redeem his own great adversary, the policeman, Javert, who spends decades hunting him.
The profoundly transformative grace that Hugo describes at the beginning of his novel is rare. It is not an every day grace. It is something extraordinary, the stuff of fables, the sort of experience that we are lucky to have once or twice in our lives.
While the Bishop’s grace might be extraordinary, its essence was not. The core of the Bishop’s gift to Valjean was that of the kindness of strangers. This should not be a foreign experience to any of us. Who has not felt the warm smile of a stranger as they walked down the street? Such moments can sometimes stick with us. They can bring a heightened awareness to us and cause subtle shifts in our perception, sometimes allowing us to see the world around us as beautiful, which is its own form of grace. Ezra Pound tried to capture the sense of such a moment of grace in his two line poem “In a Station of the Metro”:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Pounds’ poem shows how, for him, the faces of a subway crowd were momentarily infused with deep beauty. This is a much more mundane kind of grace than Hugo describes in “Les Miserables,” but it is grace nonetheless.
These moments of mundane grace, small kindnesses, gentle looks and unexpected beauty can be fleeting. On occasion they remain with us for a while, but most of the time they are forgotten almost as they occur. Such mundane grace can come from almost anyone, be they strangers or our most intimate friends and family, and at any time.
We can give grace just as easily as we can receive it. Another version of our story, this one from the Hasidic Jewish tradition, illustrates how.
It seems that once there was a Rabbi who encountered two thieves in the process of robbing his home. He was not a rich man and they were about to take everything he owned. When he saw them he did not grow angry or try to stop them. Instead he told them, “take these things as a gift from me.” The thieves fled in confusion. Being a Rabbi, he was concerned about the souls of the potential thieves. So, from that night forth before going to be bed he would say “All my possessions are held in common. They belong to everyone.” He wanted to make certain that if other thieves came they would not be guilty of theft.
In this version of the story the Rabbi gives grace to others indiscriminatingly. They may be coming to steal his possessions but instead of committing a crime, they end up receiving a gift. The Rabbi denies himself ownership over his possessions so that if someone steals them they won’t be guilty of a sin.
For the Rabbi the giving of grace is a spiritual practice. Every day he reminds himself that what belongs to him does not really belong to him, but belongs to everyone. He is indiscriminate in his well wishing. He gives it to the stranger as easily as he does to members of his community.
Each of us is capable of giving grace in the same way that the Rabbi does. We can do it by being kind to those around us. You never know when simply smiling at someone might change their mood, or even save their life.
A few years ago I read about a young man who survived a suicide attempt. He threw himself off of the Golden Gate Bridge and into the San Francisco Bay. Before he jumped he sat on the bridge for a while. He felt alone in the world and told himself that all it would take to stop his suicide was someone simply talking to him while he sat on the bridge. Many people passed him. No one so much as said hello to him. After an hour or so he leapt off the bridge. Someone could have stopped him if they had given a stranger the simple gift of a hello. But no one did. All he needed was a simple act of grace. No one gave it to him. Yet anyone could have.
This reminds me of how easy and how challenging it can be to give grace. It easy: sometimes all it takes is a smile. It is hard: it requires us to move out of our comfort zones; to reach out to those who surround us; to be aware of those who surround us. And that can be a great challenge. It is one I fail to meet almost everyday. When was the last time you smiled, and I mean truly smiled not just nodded in recognition, at a stranger?
This brings me to the third version of our story. It comes from the Zen Buddhist tradition.
Many years ago there was a Zen Master whose life was very simple. He lived by himself in a small hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief snuck into the hut only to find that there was nothing to steal.
After a little while, the Zen Master returned and found the thief. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the burglar, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The Zen Master stripped off his humble garments. The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away.
As the thief fled into the distance the Zen Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he thought, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
Of the three versions of the story, this is the one that I like the best. It raises questions about what grace is and who is capable of giving it. It suggests that the reception of grace is facilitated by a person’s attitude. To look up at the moon and think that it is a gift to give might seem ridiculous. On the other hand, being able to look at the moon and realize that it is beautiful is a gift. Not everyone has that capacity at all times.
I imagine that most of you have had the experience of seeing a breathtaking moon rise. You are driving down the highway and then, over the next ridge, it catches you unaware, seemingly out of nowhere, a brilliant yellow moon. The craters stand out and the orb of the moon appears larger than it should. A cloud drifts by, the stars shine brighter, and everything in the world suddenly seems impossibly beautiful. On occasions like that, the moon itself is a sort of grace. You did not do anything to deserve it. It came unbidden and on its own, but there it is. To cultivate an awareness of the grace of the moon is to become more aware of the profound grace that surrounds us at all times.
Maybe we have to strip ourselves naked like the Zen Master to truly experience the grace that surrounds us. Perhaps it is only once we have shorn our minds all of the distractions of materialism that we are able to truly experience the world around us as a kind of grace. Life itself is its own unasked for gift. This is something that I think most people forget from time to time. Especially in the chaotic hustle and bustle of our consumer culture. Who has time to appreciate, or even pay attention to, the moon amidst cell phones, computers and televisions? When was the last time you looked at the moon?
When the Zen Master gave away his last clothes to the thief, he might have been thinking that he was removing the last of his material distractions. In that moment, as he stared up at the moon, maybe his absolute lack of material possessions made him acutely aware of the simple gift of life. Did he understand that each breath, each moment, is a form a grace? Did his own nakedness make him even more conscious of the beauty that surrounds us all?
And what about the thief? What was the thief thinking as he fled the Zen Master’s hut? Did the gift of clothes transform him somehow? With his material needs met, was he able to see the moon? or did he remain the same old vagabond after the encounter?
Between the Zen Master and the thief the question must also be asked: who is giving and who is receiving grace? Perhaps both give and receive in their own way. Perhaps the theft of the clothes is as much a gift to the Zen Master as the clothes themselves are to the thief. Each brings the other a new sort of awareness.
The Zen story also suggests that we are most aware of grace when we cultivate the right attitude towards it. This is a spiritual practice. The Zen Master was able to do without his clothes and appreciate the beauty of the moon precisely because he was a Zen Master. Not everyone would have the same experience in a similar situation.
Not all of us, and probably none of us, will ever become Zen Masters and be able to both give and receive grace in the way that Zen Master in the story does. But we can cultivate the right attitude for giving and receiving grace. This is the attitude of gratitude.
Our lives are their own forms of grace. It is proper that we respond to the unexpected gifts in the world with gratitude. As Elizabeth Tarbox said in our reading this morning: “The world is full of blessings.” When we express gratitude we become aware of the grace that exists in our lives. Tarbox suggests this when she expresses gratitude for having a heart that can break while at the same time remembering “the sunrise over the ocean.” For the complicated world we live in–with all of its blemishes–even gratitude is not enough. But cultivating gratitude can make us more receptive to the grace around us. It can cause us to be thankful for even the pain in our lives. Such pain makes us human. A spiritual practice of gratitude can cause us to expand our definition of grace to encompass all of life itself.
Grace is something we receive and it is something we give. Each version of the story tells us something about grace from a slightly different perspective. The story from “Les Miserables” reminds us of just how transformative grace can be. The Hasidic tale teaches us that grace is something that we can easily give each other. And the Zen Story complicates the picture and tries to remind us that grace can be found in nature and when we cultivate the right attitude.
Let us then be aware of the grace that exists in our lives. Let us be grateful for the sun, the moon and the stars. Let us appreciate the cracks in the sidewalk, the weed flowers that come up through concrete and the shine of broken glass. Let us remember the miracles found in an orange. Let us be thankful for the kindness of strangers and of our friends. Let us be ever open to the unexpected and the grace that we may receive at any moment.
Thank you for listening to me. I am grateful for that.
Amen and Blessed Be.