I have a black and white framed photo of Nelson Mandela hanging in my office. If I imagined what the state of grace looks like, it would be that.
The photo, purportedly taken the day he was released from prison, is spellbinding. His eyes are closed, his lips are open in a peaceful smile and his long graceful fingers cradle his chin. It stopped me one day as I was flipping through a magazine, grabbed my heart and squeezed. I cut it out, framed it and hung it where I would see it every day.
I find solace in that photo, particularly lately, when I have been feeling discouraged about the state of leadership in the world, the seasonal acrimony of the U.S. Presidential election and a very different vision of the world laid out in the inaugural address. It has me thinking about grace in dark times.
Today, as I watched former president, Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, take their leave of Washington, I was reminded of perhaps the most moving address of his presidency. It was a eulogy he delivered in honour of fallen state senator Clementa Pinckney in June 2015 who was gunned down with eight fellow parishoners inside the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Obama said, “Grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather grace is the free and benevolent favor of God…out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited Grace upon us. He has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind; he has given us the chance where we’ve been lost to find our best selves.”
Moments of Grace
When I think of those times in my life when I have experienced Grace, I think of Muir Woods. About 15 years ago, I enrolled in a very intense leadership development program in which I came to question my sense of self. Following one of the retreats, I visited Muir Woods, an old growth coast redwood forest near San Francisco. Entering Muir Woods was like stepping into an ancient cathedral. As I walked into that natural space, shrouded and cooled by an enormous canopy of branches, I felt as if my heart might burst open. I felt tiny among these giants and yet profoundly cherished.
Finding Our Best Selves
I am not a theologian and I don’t pretend to understand the spiritual significance of Grace. I can only relate to my experience of it and the meaning I take from it. While I remember those experiences as big events in my life, as I get older, I notice that I am visited by Grace all the time. It is simply that most of the time I am not awake enough to notice the small moments of Grace that surround me every day. I suspect this is true for all of us. Most of the time, we just can’t see it. But sometimes, when life seems almost unbearably dark or frightening or even when we are distracted by the daily struggles of getting by, we cannot ignore those moments so filled with compassion that we are brought to our knees.
I believe that grace calls on us to visit that compassion on others. As Obama said on that tragic day in South Carolina, grace “has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves.” In that moment, Obama embodies the call of grace and the call of leadership. To bring forth our best and most compassionate selves and in so doing, invite the best in others.
No matter what our politics or our beliefs, I think we can agree that the recent presidential campaign and the days leading up to the inauguration have not brought out our best selves. They certainly did not bring out the best in me. In November, I spewed such venom at my television that it is a wonder I didn’t melt the screen. Perhaps now, it is time for a little grace – the unconditional expression of love to anyone, to everyone, including ourselves. Moments of grace inspire us to get above the fray and meet the world with compassion whether or not we judge that compassion to be deserved.
The Call of Grace
Grace calls us to the practice of compassion, even toward people with whom we disagree. Even toward people whose actions and beliefs we abhor. It calls us to the practice of forgiveness, releasing ourselves from the petty resentments or the bitterness against those who we feel have wronged us. And finally, to the practice of gratitude because it is through that practice that we become awake to the little moments of grace that are right in front of us and simply waiting for us to notice.
As I write this, I look over at the photograph of Nelson Mandela and I imagine his liberation from prison. I don’t know what he was feeling in that moment the photograph was taken. Was it joy, was it grace, was it gratitude? All I know is what the image evokes in me. It calls me, always, to my best self.