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The Phenomena of Grace(1)

An understanding of the phenomena of grace is essential to completely understanding the process of growth in human beings.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

'''Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

And when we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We'll have no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we first begun.

John Newton (1725-1807)

The first word associated with grace in this famous early American hymn is "amazing". Something amazes us when it is not in the ordinary course of things, when it is not predictable by what we know of "natural law".

Grace can be demonstrated to be a common phenomenon and, to a certain extent, a predictable one, but the reality of grace will remain inexplicable within the conceptual framework of conventional science and "natural law" as we understand it. It will remain miraculous and amazing.

The phenomena of grace are characterised as follows:

(a) They serve to nurture - support, protect and enhance - human life and spiritual growth;

(b) The mechanism of their action is either incompletely understandable, or totally obscure according to the principles of natural law as interpreted by current scientific thinking;

(c) Their occurrence is frequent, routine, commonplace and essentially universal among humanity;

(d) Although potentially influenced by human consciousness, their origin is outside of the conscious will and beyond the process of conscious decision-making.

Their commonness indicates that these phenomena are manifestations of a single phenomenon:

A powerful force originating outside of human consciousness which nurtures the spiritual growth of human beings.

This force has consistently been recognised by the religious, who have applied to it the name of grace. We cannot touch this force. We have no appropriate way to measure it. Yet it exists. It is real.

We cannot even locate this force. We have only said where it is not: residing in human consciousness. Then, where does it reside? Some of the phenomena of grace suggest that grace resides in the unconscious mind of the individual. Other phenomena indicate that this force exists way beyond the boundaries of the individual.

The religious who, of course, ascribe the origins of grace to God, believe it to be literally God's love, but throughout the ages have had the same difficulty in locating God. There are within theology two contrary traditions: one which holds that grace emanates down from an external God to man; the other which holds that grace is immanent of the God within the centre of man's being.

This problem, the whole problem of paradox, in fact, results from our desire to locate things. We have a profound tendency to conceptualise in terms of discrete entities.

However, consider an alternative way of thinking of the individual. Think of him or her not as a true individual entity, but one with boundaries marked by a most permeable membrane through which, under which and over which other "entities" may climb, crawl or flow. Just as our conscious mind is continually partially permeable to our unconscious, so is our unconscious permeable to the "mind" without, the "mind" that permeates us yet is not us as entities.

"For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin and the bones in the flesh and the heart in the whole, so are we, soul and body, clad in the goodness of God and enclosed. Yea, and more homely; for all these may wear and waste away, but the Goodness of God is ever whole."

Dame Julian of Norwich (c.1393)

Regardless of how we ascribe them or where we locate them, the following described "miracles" indicate that our growth as human beings is assisted by a force other than our conscious will.

The miracle of health

It is an amazing fact that so many psychotherapists' clients are remarkably mentally healthy. It is seldom that clients are not basically healthier mentally than their parents. We know why people become mentally ill. What we don't understand is why people survive the traumas of their lives as well as they do. We know exactly why certain people commit suicide. We don't know, within the ordinary concepts of causality, why certain others don't commit suicide.

All we can say is that there is a force, the mechanics of which we do not fully understand, that seems to operate routinely in most people to protect and foster their mental health even under the most adverse of conditions.

Although the concept of resistance is most commonly applied to the infectious diseases, it can also be applied to all physical disease in one way or another, except that in the instance of non-infectious disease we have almost no knowledge of how resistance works. Individuals with a certain personality pattern seem to have different types of difficulty in resisting a particular disorder, while the vast majority of us have no difficulty whatsoever. How does this happen? We don't know. These questions can be asked about almost all diseases, including the most common ones, such as heart attacks, strokes, cancer, peptic ulcers and others. An increasing number of thinkers are beginning to suggest that almost all disorders are psychosomatic - that the psyche is somehow involved in the causation of the various failures that occur in the resistance system.

The amazing thing is not these failures of the resistance system; it is that the resistance system works as well as it does. In the ordinary course of things we should be eaten alive by bacteria, consumed by cancer, clogged up by fats and clots, eroded by acids. It is hardly remarkable that we sicken and die; what is truly remarkable is that we don't normally often get sick and we don't die very quickly.

We can therefore say the same thing about physical disorders as we said about mental disorders: There is a force, the mechanism of which we do not fully understand, that seems to operate routinely in most people to protect and encourage their physical health even under the most adverse conditions.

The matter of accidents raises further interesting questions. We need to apply the concept of resistance to accidents as well as to disease, to think in terms of accident-resistance as well as accident-proneness. It is not simply that certain people at certain times of their lives are accident-prone; it is also that in the ordinary course of things most of us are accident-resistant.

Most of us will find in our own experience patterns of repeated narrowly averted disasters, a number of accidents that almost happened that is many times greater than the number of accidents that actually did happen. Furthermore, we may acknowledge that our personal patterns of survival, of accident-resistance, are not the result of any process of conscious decision-making. Could it be that most of us do lead "Charmed lives"? Could it really be that the line in the hymn is true: '''Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far"?

We may think there is nothing exciting about all this, that what we are talking about are simply manifestations of the survival instinct. Actually, the matter of accidents suggests that our tendency towards survival may be something other than, and even more miraculous than an instinct, which is a phenomenon miraculous enough in itself. While we understand hardly anything about instincts, we do conceive of them as operating within the boundaries of the individual who possesses them. Resistance to mental disorders or physical disease we can imagine being localised within the unconscious mind or bodily processes of the individual. Accidents, however, involve interactions between individuals or between individuals and inanimate things. It is clear that our traditional concept of instinct will not be of help. Of more assistance perhaps will be the concept of synchronicity.

The miracle of serendipity

We still have no conceivable explanation for so-called "psychic-phenomena" which are clearly related to the operation of the unconscious.

The fact that highly implausible events, for which no cause can be determined within the framework of known natural law, occur with implausible frequency has come to be known as the principle of synchronicity. It is the timing that is the important, perhaps crucial, element in these implausible events. The principle of synchronicity does not explain why or how events happened; it simply states that such implausible conjunctions of events in time occur more frequently than would be predicted by chance alone. It does not explain miracles. It serves to make clear that miracles seem to be matters of timing and matters that are extremely commonplace.

Another characteristic of psychic phenomena is that a significant number of such occurrences seem to be fortunate - in some way beneficial to one or more of the people involved.

It is possible that occurrences statistically improbable to a degree to suggest they are examples of synchronicity or the paranormal are as likely to be harmful as they are beneficial. (We hear of freak accidents as well as freak non-accidents.) However, the impression is that the frequency of such statistically improbable occurrences that are clearly beneficial is far greater than that in which the result seems detrimental. The beneficial results of such occurrences need not be life-saving; far more often they are simply life-enhancing or growth producing.

Paranormal events with beneficial consequences can be defined as the phenomenon of serendipity, i.e. "the gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for". There is significance in the term, "gift". It implies that some people have it, while others don't, that some people are fortunate while others are not. If grace is, "valuable or agreeable things not sought for", it would seem to be available to everyone. However, some of us take advantage of it, while others do not. One of the reasons we fail to take full advantage of grace is that we are not fully aware of its presence. Serendipitous events occur to us all, but we frequently fail to recognise their serendipitous nature; we consider them unremarkable and, consequently, fail to take full advantage of them.

Exploration and Discussion

1. When have you felt grace at work in your life?

2. Take a few minutes to review your life.

(a) What health hazards or accidents have you resisted and survived?

(b) Where are you most aware of the miracle of health?

3. Are you basically in better health mentally than your parents?

4. What unexplainable coincidences or serendipitous happenings have you experienced?