Elizabeth Wellington: There's a word for the thing we need most right now: Grace

Elizabeth Wellington, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Religious News

There was a time when I ran three to five miles before work and trained for half marathons. Three years ago, however, I tore a muscle in my right hip flexor. I limped for months. I could barely walk, let alone run.

It took 18 months for my leg to heal. And when I finally tried running again, I sucked. My pace was slow. My knees buckled. My whole body hurt. I quit.

But now with spring in full bloom, I have the will to get back on the trail, but I'm not sure I have the stamina. I found myself recently whining to my friend, Heather, a fellow runner, on FaceTime. "E-beth," she said, "You've been through a lot. Have some grace with yourself."

Grace. There was that beautiful word again.

In a year when falling down and getting up has been a running theme in our lives, grace is infusing the zeitgeist with tenderness and strength. It crosses all the lines of the traumas that envelop us: the pandemic, social injustice, our divided politics. These days — both the devout and the secular — are defining grace as permission to treat ourselves and one another with mercy as we work our way through the drama of what has become our daily reality.

"Grace goes beyond self-care and treating yourself," said the Rev. Charles Howard, the University of Pennsylvania chaplain. "It's extending kindness to others and yourself even when it's not deserving." Grace is offering a soft place to land. "It gives us permission to just be," Howard said.


What is grace?

Grace's roots are deeply religious. Jewish people say grace after meals in the recitation of Birkat Hamazon. Muslims pray the Fatiha at least five times a day. Its opening words: In the name of Allah, Most gracious, most merciful.

Christians see grace as a gift from God that is bestowed on us even when we are undeserving. This gift gives us the strength to avoid sin and do good deeds. There is however, one nonnegotiable prerequisite: the unassailable belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Growing up Catholic, I was taught that I received grace through the seven sacraments and that the Virgin Mary is full of grace. Grace was like magic pixie dust: something I wanted, even needed, but wasn't sure why.

The unattainable nature of grace was reinforced even further in its secular uses. Grace is the Latin word for “pleasing.” Dancers are graceful. Models walk the runway with grace. We give grace periods for late bills. My elders insisted that to be gracious is to smile through situations that were more deserving of a cuss out than a curtsy. Grace was tenuous. Grace was finite. And most importantly, grace was something to be earned.


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