What Is Grace?

I am being followed. It started a month ago when I began doing public readings of my new memoir, "Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert's Search for Spiritual Community."

Everywhere I go I look into the crowd to find my stalker -- a question masked behind different faces but always shyly and defiantly rising to meet me again. "What is grace?"

I am moved by this persistent question among strangers of varying age, gender and ethnicity all longing to understand grace. Is it the forgiveness of sins by a merciful God? Is it something we can offer to others? The concept of grace befuddles us. I know what it is like to sit and squirm with both the simplicity and difficulty of possible answers. Grace -- a beautiful word, gentle sounding, a bit ethereal, a quiet force one could imagine floating through a room unassuming yet shifting everything in its wake. Grace. I have made it through years in Catholic and Protestant churches, received a master's degree in theology, and written a spiritual memoir. Yet I confess that when I think about defining grace few words encompass the depth and width of it.

It is hard to wrap our minds around grace, something offered freely and without merit. Grace doesn't make sense in a world where "we pay for what we get" and "we get what we deserve." The idea of grace can be an affront because grace does not seem to be a respecter of persons. Not everyone gets what they deserve. Not everyone pays the price. Grace stands there with open arms, an open table, an exposed heart, and seemingly bountiful bushels and bushels of hospitality, patience, and love.

I am not convinced we have to understand all grace means. The gift and the struggle is to receive it. It is a humbling thing to walk into the arms of grace because the very act of embracing it forces us to see the emptiness in our own hands and to name our own inadequacies.

The catechism of the Catholic Church says that grace is our God given ability to participate in God's life. God here understood as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. That's nice and to the point, but actually I am more helped by lyrics from that U2 song conveniently called "Grace" that compares grace to a simple girl bearing creation on her, I assume, fertile life-giving hips.

A Question of Grace

Whenever I hear this song I imagine a West African woman wearing the traditional colorful garb of ethnic wrap skirt and loose fitting top and a young child wrapped around her hips with her headscarf. This is how I grew up, seeing women carrying children to and from the local market. I am taken by the notion that God's grace might be symbolized by a West African woman off to market bearing the burden and humanity of the world as her child, one whose weight is seemingly forgotten because it is carried by maternal love.

My mother and countless aunts were beautiful West African women who raised me and whose colorful, passionate personalities seemed larger than life. These women danced freely and sensually at family gatherings, teaching me how to sway my hips with what should have been a natural rhythmic instinct. These women disciplined and advised me as though they had all given birth to me. These were women who, in my mind's eye could do just about anything, shake a dollar out of a quarter, balance full-time work and childrearing and find enough time to travel the world returning home with pockets full of unbelievable stories that suggested they had visited countries that didn't exist to the rest of us.

That U2 song makes me picture "Grace" as an endlessly resourceful and imaginative West African woman, strong and playful but full of loving discipline and sage counsel. Maybe "Grace" sashays her hips to a loving tune of discipline, forgiveness, nurturance and celebration, like my community of aunts. Maybe "Grace" never runs out of imaginative ways to love us and to encourage us to choose life over all other options no matter how dire and desperate things may seem.

I do not mind being followed by the question of grace. It keeps me from getting too comfortable or rigid in my definitions. It keeps me open to looking out for glimpses of God in the liveliest and most mundane of places.

Parts of this article are adapted from "Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent, Introvert's Search for Spiritual Community" by Enuma Okoro. Copyright c 2010 Fresh Air Books. Used with permission.

Enuma Okoro was born in the United States but reared in five countries on three continents. Currently living in Durham, N.C., she says her writing is inspired by all the cultures and people in which she continues to find glimpses of God. Her spiritual memoir, "Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent, Introvert's Search for Spiritual Community" was released in September.