What Does Grace Look Like?

Everyone has moments of grace in their life. Sometimes is difficult to recognize them.

Take a look at some moments of grace shared by staff and contributors of the Center.

"Food to Share" Submitted by Rev. Dan McMullin

For the past seven years I directed the interfaith center at Cornell. One weekend, three students joined me at an interfaith leadership training program in New York City. All three were international students whose faith tradition was instantly recognizable: Sohee was a Christian from Seoul who wore a small, gold crucifix around her neck; Brandon was an observant Jew from Tel Aviv who wore a blue and white kippah; and Aisha was a Muslim from Pakistan who wore a beautiful hijab.

 

After a long day of meetings we walked together to Union Square Park and found a street vendor serving both Halal and Kosher food. After they each offered a short prayer of thanksgiving—Sohee to our heavenly Father, Brandon
to hashem, and Aisha to the All Compassionate One, to which I simply added the word Amen—we ate enormous gyros filled with lamb and chickpeas and cucumber salad.

 

A few on-lookers smiled at the sight of three young people and a gray-headed old man bowing their heads and praying together on a noisy Saturday evening. One woman thanked us for this “public, peaceful moment” while another remarked that together we had “made God present” for her.

 

What does grace look like? It was the freedom we felt to pray to our God. It was the smiles of friendly strangers. It was the verbal reassurance that God was present. It was the joy we had finding food that all four of us could share.

"Mirror" Submitted by Jim Krisher

It was his first time attending our Tuesday evening spirituality and scripture group for inmates at Midstate Correctional Facility, and he sat down immediately to my right at the rectangular table. I started the group as I usually do, with a guided meditation — this time based on a line from an ancient hymn to the name of Jesus: “Jesus, lover of every human face.”

 

In the sharing period after the meditation, this new friend on my right told a remarkable story. He shared how for many years now he couldn’t bring himself to look at himself. “I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t look in a mirror,” he said. And to avoid having to see himself, he had grown a long and full beard so he wouldn’t have to shave, which would have required him to look at himself in a mirror.

Yet, he shared, that very morning another inmate had challenged him on this saying “You’re a good-looking guy — I don’t understand what your problem is!” And so that very morning he had forced himself to spend some time looking at himself in the mirror, and he had thought about how Jesus loved him. And that very morning he had shaved off his beard.

 

“So, it just blows my mind,” he said, “that I come here tonight for the first time, and you begin with a meditation on how Jesus loves my face!” And it just blows my mind too when I think of that man with the clean-shaven face, and the big smile — a man who had come home to himself at last, and seen himself as beloved.

 
 
 
 
 

Nicholas Herman was 18 years old when he had a conversion experience.  It came to him not as a result of studying or hearing a convincing preacher. His conversion was the result of simply looking at a tree.  On a winter’s day, he stood considering the nakedness of the tree’s trunk and branches, and he realized how soon it would be budding with new life.  And as he thought about this, Nicholas was struck with wonder at the grandeur and providence of God. He later described it as a vision of Love so powerful that the devotion in his heart had never surpassed the intensity of that moment he spent looking at a tree.

 

Afterward, he was convinced that God could be encountered in everything. He set his heart on trying to always live in the awareness of God’s presence and to let nothing distract him from this awareness.  In fact, Nicholas claimed to be more united with God when he was busy about his chores as a cook in a monastery than when he engaged in formal prayer in the chapel.

 

And so it was that Nicholas Herman, also known as Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, quietly became a mystic amid the pots and pans.  He died 3 centuries ago, leaving behind a wonderful little book called The Practice of the Presence of God, which has proved to be such a blessing to so many!  (We have it in our Spiritual Renewal Center library.)

 
 
 
 
 
No Break-In Required Submitted by Kathy Faber-Langendoen

Slowly, the frustrations with her job accumulated. What once was a great fit for her gifts and passions, started to chafe. As we met for spiritual direction, she talked about challenges to do her job faithfully and with integrity—seeing God’s work in that but yet, weighed down by the challenge.

 

A new job opened up, teaching new Americans, refugees from around the world. She dug in, connecting with people from Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, China, and elsewhere. Joy enveloped her—she sensed in her bones that God had called her to this new task. She explained it this way: “You know when you get a new pair of shoes, and you have to break them in? Well, this is better than that. It’s like a fantastic pair of new shoes that fits perfectly, right out of the box. No break-in period required!”

 

New shoes that fit perfectly.

"White Chocolate" Submitted by Meg Castellini

He was the fourth of seven children, and the fourth son that my parents, who are in their nineties, would lose to death. It’s an unnatural occurrence for parents to bid farewell to their children, yet my parents have survived this tragedy again and again. 

 

My brother, the most recent loss, had suffered much of his life from mental illness and alcoholism. When he was placed into hospice care, his vision was nearly gone and his heart was operating at twelve percent. This brother, a known survivor of cross-country hitchhikes and swimming in a Florida pond with a resident alligator, fooled everyone living 18 months under hospice care.

 

Near the end, he was content to “survive” in his humble condo, making do with Dinty-Moore beef stew and York peppermint patties. I enjoyed our bi-weekly telephone conversations when we would “go shopping” at online stores. His final order consisted of several bars of white chocolate. I thought this request was a bit odd, but hey, he’s dying and sometimes cravings are weird.

 

He passed the first day of spring, on the Feast of St. Joseph, something we were anticipating, but which took us by surprise nonetheless. A couple of days went by and my parents welcomed a friend from their building who stopped by to share her condolences. This thoughtful woman brought several elegantly wrapped white chocolates. Coincidence? Not for me and my family. We read it as a sign from Bill, that he is ok and in peace at last.

That's what grace looks like.

"The Jonathan" Submitted by Shaun Slusarski

As part of my Jesuit formation, this past May my brother novices and I served as nurse’s aides at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. Dubbed the “the Vestibule to Heaven,” Calvary primarily offers hospice care to patients facing terminal illnesses. During our six week visit, our care was primarily bodily — we bathed patients, fed them, and helped them go to the bathroom.

 

One morning, a crotchety but affable octogenarian summoned me to his room. He wanted to use “the Jonathan”, and the tone in his voice indicated how much he loved his variation on the more typical slang for toilet. I walked him into the bathroom, but when he had finished, I noticed that he had made a bit of mess. He cracked a joke about it, and we bantered back and forth as I began to gently wipe his legs, his back, and his bottom.

Before I left, he shook my hand and thanked me for helping him use “the Jonathan.” He took such mischievous delight in that term. “I promise that in ten years when I’m dead and gone,” he said, now with tears in his eyes, “You’re going to think of that word – ‘the Jonathan’ – and it will be me trying to reach you from heaven.”

 

I left his room, now with tears in my eyes too. I was in awe at the sudden depth that had emerged, and astonished by the power of the new connection I had with this man. I was amazed that God’s Presence could be manifested through an accident in the bathroom, the playful tenderness it provoked, and “the Jonathan.”

 

I hope he keeps his promise.

 

That’s what grace looks like.

"Grace in Zagreb" Submitted by Jim Krisher

I was privileged to spend three weeks this past July on a mission trip to Zagreb, Croatia, where I worked as a volunteer with Jesuit Refugee Services. I had daily contact and rich conversations with many beautiful but suffering people in three refugee camps there.

 

I met men and women and a significant number of unaccompanied minors, most from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, as well as smaller numbers from other troubled countries in the middle east and beyond. They had fled their countries, leaving behind homes and possessions to escape the horrific violence of war, or religious persecution, or ethnic hatreds and extremist threats. Many had already lost loved ones or entire families. Their stories would break my heart, and I felt so helpless because I couldn’t make things better for them. I only hoped my caring and attention to their stories brought them some small comfort in the face of so much tragedy. What does grace look like in the midst of such sadness and pain?

 

There was the twenty-three year old man who had to flee from Bangladesh because he was Hindu, and some extremists among the Muslim majority were killing or maiming the Hindu minority. His father was already dead, and his mother was in the hospital after having her arm chopped off by the extremists. Yet this wide-eyed guy with a gentle smile still nurtured hope for a better future for himself and reunion with his mother in a safer country. That’s what grace looks like.

There was the young married couple, also twenty-three, who had secretly converted to Christianity in Iran, where that is a crime punishable by death or decades of imprisonment. They had fled when their conversion began to be whispered about and the religious police learned of it. I sat in their little room at the camp in awe of the passion in their voices as they spoke of Christ and their dedication to Him. That’s what grace looks like.

 

There was a young Muslim man from Aleppo in Syria, who had fled the war there with his pregnant wife and their three-year old daughter. His city, he told me with his scant English vocabulary, was “all gone” and the people of the city were “all dead.” Yet here he was in his shabby refugee camp, holding his little girl on his lap and smiling at her with such tender fatherly love. It could be months of waiting to hear if they will be granted asylum or not, yet for him the important thing was the well-being of his family and looking toward a new life for them. That’s what grace looks like.

 

And I could go on and on telling such stories.

These refugees are the victims of human sin, driven away from their homelands and often shut out by countries that could provide them safety and assistance. Yet God does not turn away from them. Deuteronomy tells us that God loves the foreigner and seeks justice for those on society’s margins – and that we, as God’s people, are commanded to do the same. (DT. 10:18-19)

 

Not only does God care deeply about refugees and how they are treated, but God’s Presence shines through their often tear-filled eyes. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

 

I saw that abounding grace during my time in Zagreb, and I will never forget that experience. 

"Caregiver" Submitted by Jim Krisher

He was sitting opposite me, a recently retired man telling of the unexpected turns in his life. It had been years since I’d last seen him, and in those years a lot had happened.

 

Chief among them was a major stroke that had severely affected his wife’s memory. While there were no outward changes in her physical abilities, mentally she was greatly diminished, unable to remember conversations from one minute to the next, prone to hoarding even bits of refuse, and needing near constant supervision.

 

He also explained how unable he was to connect with God in any of the ways he had connected in the past — through formal prayer, church involvement, spiritual reading, etc. He had not the least desire to even try to do those things anymore, and was concerned about what that said about his faith and relationship with God.

 

“Where I meet God is in caring for my wife, in loving her. My whole life revolves around her. People ask me all the time how can I do it, or if I’m resentful of the demands this makes on me. But I don’t resent it at all! In caring for her I experience God’s caring for me. God is so real for me in those moments it almost overwhelms me!”

"Nicholas Herman" Submitted by Jim Krisher
"Prison Ministry" Submitted by Jim Krisher

It happened during one of my visits to Midstate Correctional Facility where I occasionally go to lead a spiritual session with the inmates. I began this particular gathering with a meditation based on an ancient invocation: “Jesus, Lover of every human face.”

 

During the sharing, I heard a very poignant story from the guy who was sitting on my immediate right. He told of how for many years he would not look at himself in a mirror. He said he didn’t know why he wouldn’t – he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. He even grew a beard so he wouldn’t have to shave, which would’ve required looking at himself in a mirror.

 

Yet that very morning, another inmate had challenged him on this – “I don’t understand why that’s a problem for you – you’re a good looking guy. What’s wrong?”  And so that very morning he’d forced himself to spend some time looking at himself in the mirror, and he was able to accept what he saw, and he thought of how God loved him.  And that very morning, he had shaved off his beard.

 

“It just blows my mind” he said, “that I came here for the first time tonight, and you start with this meditation on how Jesus loves my face!” And it just blows my mind too, when I think about that brother, sitting there on my right with his clean-shaven face, and his big smile, and his really amazing story – a man who had come home to himself at last, and seen himself as beloved.

"Franz Jagerstatter" Submitted by Jim Krisher

Blessed Franz Jagerstatter was an uneducated Austrian peasant who in the name of Jesus refused to fight in Hitler’s army and was martyred.  He left behind a beloved wife and four beloved little daughters.

 

The cost of his fidelity to Christ was so very great in terms of the emotional suffering he endured, and the abuse and hardships of his time in a Nazi prison. Yet the night before his execution, when the chaplain came and offered to read and pray with him, Franz politely declined. “I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord and any reading would only interrupt my communication with my God,” he said.

 

The chaplain later testified that Franz’ eyes shone with such joy and confidence that he would never lose the memory of that glance. The next day Franz walked calmly to the guillotine, where he was beheaded.

"Donut Shop" Submitted by Jim Krisher

A young businessman, who comes for spiritual direction, told me about a recent Sunday morning when his little daughter’s soccer game ran longer than usual. He was unable to attend the 11 am service at his church and was feeling some good, old-fashioned religious guilt about it. As they were heading home, at his daughter’s request they stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts to get a treat.

 

The place was crowded, but his daughter was so excited to be there. Apparently, Dunkin’ Donuts had given all the kids on the soccer team a uniform shirt with the words, “Free Donut and Hot Chocolate,” printed on bottom. When they got to the counter, the girl pulled out the bottom of her shirt to show the message and gleefully collected her free treat.

 

“She was just so happy, so joyful,” said the businessman. And at the remembrance of it, he broke down and started to cry.

That’s what grace looks like.

"Bob" Submitted by Jim Krisher

I had gone to visit my dear friend Bob, who at age 80 was slowly dying of Lou Gehrig's disease in a nursing home bed. The disease had ravaged his body and he was curled up in a fetal position in a nursing home bed with tubes coming out it seems in every direction. There was very little muscle use in his body. All that was left really were the muscles in his face and he could speak a little; although that did not last long either. I remember how I had gone in to visit him and on this particular day I found him smiling.His face was absolutely radiant. "I've just been looking at that tree outside my window," he said to me. "It's just so beautiful. God just keeps blessing me and blessing me." "God just keeps blessing me and blessing me" said the man dying of Lou Gehrig's disease curled up in his nursing home bed.That's what grace looks like.

Prison Bible Study Submitted by Jim Krisher

I was leading a Bible study in one of the medium security correctional facilities where our prison ministry team serves. There were about 20 guys dressed in drab green prison garb in attendance around the long table, and we had been looking at the parable of the vineyard laborers in Matthew's gospel, chapter 20. I love teaching that parable as it always stimulates animated discussion, and even debate about whether the scenario Jesus presents is fair or not, and what the meaning of it is for us. I was drawing out some of the power of that parable when a young man a few seats down on my right suddenly exclaimed "Whoa!" and pushed himself back a bit from the table. He seemed startled, and his eyes were wide, and he looked at me and said "How'd you do that? How'd you do that?"

"How'd I do what?" I asked, perplexed by his outburst. "How'd you do it?" he repeated. "One minute we're talking about a gospel parable and the next minute it's all about us, it's about me and my life! How did you make that happen?"

While I was delighted to know that he had been so deeply affected by the scripture that evening, I knew it wasn't me that had made it happen. That's what grace looks like.

Alone Submitted by Jim Krisher

He came into my office one cold winter's day and sat down in the rocker with his coat wrapped around him. I had never seen this man before, and I have never seen him since, but he had come to tell me a strange tale that I've never forgotten.

 

He told of how he had struggled in his life and had become an alcoholic. His wife and family had long since left him by the time he finally hit bottom and got sober. But then it all caught up with him—guilt for the anguish he’d caused, regret at missed opportunities. Now he was facing the bleak prospect of living his remaining years totally alone.

 

One night he decided to end his life. He decided he would begin drinking again, figuring he would just drink himself to death. So he got into his car and drove to a bar where he used to spend a lot of time. He backed the car into a space, moved the gear shift into park, and turned key into the off and locked position. Strangely, the engine just kept running. Startled, he twisted key back and forth, but the engine just kept running!

 

Then he got mad, took the keys, jumped out and headed for the bar anyway, leaving his car idling. But somewhere inside himself he knew that this was God calling him back to life, away from self-destruction. So he returned to the car and drove home. Once he was in his driveway, the engine turned off as normal and never again had a mind of its own.

 

He had no doubt that God had been reaching out to him, and he was filled with a tearful gratitude he could barely express. He couldn't make any sense of it, yet there was this astonishing fact: he had been pulled back from the brink of disaster, and he would never be same again.

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