The 15 summary statements at the end of David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” (New York: Random House, 2015, pp. 300, $28), are so good that I could write a column about each of them. Instead, I will focus on the summary statement that emphasizes the presence of grace. Brooks writes the following:
“We are all ultimately saved by grace. The struggle against weakness often has a U shape. You are living your life and then you get knocked off course – either by an overwhelming love, or by failure, illness, loss of employment, or twist of fate. The shape is advance-retreat-advance. In retreat, you admit your need and surrender your crown. You open up space that others might fill. And grace floods in. It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted. You don’t flail about in desperation, because hands are holding you up. You don’t have to struggle for a place, because you are embraced and accepted. You just have to accept the fact that you are accepted. Gratitude fills the soul, and with it the desire to serve and give back.” (p. 263)
I suspect that all of us “get knocked off the course” from time to time. The pattern that Brooks sketches, “advance-retreat-advance,” is probably a pattern that fits the experience of many of us. I am thinking right now of advice that has been given to me by confessors and spiritual directors for over 50 years. It made a great deal of sense every time it was offered to me. More than that, it seemed to be perfect for the way that l live and for the problems that I experience. At times, I am able to heed that advice. Other times I forget it – or in spite of it – regress and retreat. I could be wrong but I think that at this time in my life, I am able to handle problems better than ever and to embrace the advice more deeply than ever.
If I have made progress, and seem to be advancing more than retreating, I know that is not merely due to my willpower or intelligence. I am very aware that I have received gifts from many sources, the most important being God, and after God, close friends and a spiritual director. It has been an ongoing journey, at times very bumpy and more than a little discouraging, and of course, it is quite possible that I will stop advancing and go back to retreating. I hope not. I also hope that my gratitude moves me “to serve and give back.”
When we look at peoples’ lives from the outside, we can slip into the error of thinking that some people have no problems. Their lives seem to be without difficulties or disappointments. Of course, there is no such human life. To be finite is to be fragile. I think occasionally when we hear of some person winning a fortune from the lottery or some contest, we are tempted to think that the winner’s life is now free from problems and worries. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps winning the fortune removes financial problems, but the winner, like us, still has to try to live in a meaningful and fulfilling way. The winner still has to engage in the most important activities: to love, be compassionate, to forgive and be faithful.
I think I understand the winner of a fortune who, when asked what he or she will do tomorrow, replies “I am going to work.” I think the response suggests that the winner realizes that essentially his or her life will not change because of the fortune. If we want some evidence that fortunes do not provide fulfillment, all we need to do is look at the lives of some celebrities, who may be multi-millionaires, but who seem to have personal problems that can’t be solved with money.
St. John of the Cross wrote that in the evening of our lives we will be judged on how we have loved. I agree, but I think that as we try to live as meaningfully as possible, we will more deeply trust in and be grateful for God’s grace. The last words of the priest in Georges Bernanos’ novel, “The Diary of a Country Priest,” are profoundly true: “Grace is everywhere.”
Father Robert Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).