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Glenn Jordan: Grace Notes

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

We walk up the shoulder of the hill and pause. From here we can see Scotland and the north coast of Antrim. Even Ailsa Craig is visible rising defiantly from a sea of emptiness. The gorse is in full bloom; charged electric yellow flowers. And the air is filled with the scent of vanilla and coconut.

I sit as quietly and as unobtrusively as I can at the bottom of our garden. The goldfinches have returned and are gorging themselves on the niger seed. With a confident dash of red about their face and head and a flashy yellow on their wings they are, despite their colouring, delightfully shy visitors. Then with a mere breath of wind I find myself standing joyfully in a blizzard of blossom from next door’s cherry tree.

The dogs explode from the boot of the car like shot from a gun and pillage their way through the thousands of fading daffodils, delighting to be free at last. They stop, side by side, alert from nose to the tip of the tail, waiting for their first sight of squirrel, then they’re off again. The squirrels seem to take pleasure in the game too, sometimes ignoring the nearest tree and running straight up the next one just as my dogs arrive at its base.

Covid evenings at home, three of us, me stretched out on one sofa with a dog curled beside me in the crook of my knee. My wife and son on the other, with the the younger dog stretched between them. We’re moving in proper order through the Marvel universe of movies. And I can only look on in gladness and smile as they discuss between them the finer details of who knows what and does what to whom as they pick out the easter eggs hidden throughout for the dedicated fans.

I’m reading slowly through the book, savouring each carefully crafted sentence yet still I’m surprised at the emotion which overwhelms me at the end of the chapter. Sometimes I don’t even get to the end and a mere paragraph suffices, mirroring back to me an insight forgotten or unknown before. And I close the book, unable to continue till it passes.

I know that no self-respecting theologian should ever forego the opportunity of writing something definitive about some great theological word or other, and that was me once. Ever willing to contend for the truth and particularly for my definition of it. But I’m older now, and maybe I’ve lost that need to define or to fight, and I’m learning more and more to accept grace as it reveals itself. To define grace risks locking it down and limiting the endlessly creative possibilities for its appearing. I’m with Mary Oliver who writes

You can have the other words-chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I'll take grace. I don't know what it is exactly, but I'll take it.[1]

I can’t exactly define it anymore, but I’m learning to recognise and appreciate those rare moments of its appearance like the elusive, watchful hares in an Irish field, or the strange revelations of kindness and goodness in the midst of a pandemic.

Once a long time ago I curated an advent blog which I called The Mockingbird’s Leap. Over the course of several years I gathered reflections on the season from friends around the world and posted them on the blog as a way of marking the season and encouraging people to pause and pay attention.

The inspiration for the title came from a piece of writing by Annie Dillard. She describes a moment when, on walking blithely around the corner of a house, out of the corner of her eye she spotted a mockingbird who had just stepped off the roof, its wings folded tight to its tiny body. Just an instant before it would be dashed to pieces on the ground it unfurled those wings and floated onto the grass. She asks why it happened? And in response she writes, The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

So my duty, my responsibility, or maybe my privilege, it seems to me, is to be there, attentive, when grace appears and to notice while, as Dillard says, “the whole world sparks and flames.” Grace happens then in the angle of the fall of wind blown rain, in the quiet that emerges following a good conversation over coffee or tea or fine whiskey; in the gentleness of a lover’s touch, or the way sunlight is broken and falls to the ground through the bare branches of winter trees.

And I am blessed to be a witness to it.

Glenn Jordan is the Programme Manager of Public Theology at Corrymeela. He runs the Irish Network for Public Theology.

[1] Sand Dabs Five, from Winter Hours by Mary Oliver

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