Bad choices usually have dire consequences, I get that. But where does that leave us on the matter of grace?
I’ve been pondering this question all week, touched off by a discussion at our small-group faith sharing meeting on Monday night. We’re reading from Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism at the moment—and in particular, from the chapter on fasting.
Kelly isn’t a semi-pelagianist; he advocates fasting as a spiritual exercise, not as reparation for sin. Still, he can’t quite free himself from a transactional form of spirituality. “In a sense, the universe has a perfect accounting system,” he writes. “…These laws are designed to help keep everything in balance and harmony. As a result, no debt in the universe goes unpaid. All debts must be settled.”
He doesn’t use the word “karma.” But this seems to be the notion he’s talking about: That, in the end, we all have to pay for the choices we make. And/or that we need to chalk up some good deeds…in order to cancel out the bad ones on our ontological ledgers.
I have to admit: That sort of thinking makes perfect sense to me. I believe we must take responsibility for our actions. And in some cases, that might mean making very difficult choices—such as exercising “tough love” on a family member who can’t seem to shake an addiction. You might have to allow your loved one to hit rock bottom, so that she finally comes to understand the consequences of her actions. Pure karma, the bitterest of pills.
Still, upon further review, this doesn’t seem to be the only law shaping the universe. Because what does the addict find, when she does finally hit rock bottom…admits her helplessness…and reaches out to a Higher Power?
Simply this: That she is surrounded by grace. And it has been there all along, for the asking.
It’s a great deal for those in dire straits. But you don’t have to be an addict in order to benefit from God’s munificence. That thought occurred to me today, during the first reading at Mass – when we heard the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by Philip after about 15 minutes of catechesis. (That sort of thing would never fly in most of the RCIA programs I’m familiar with today. We want to work our way through this business of conversion. We want to make sure we cover the material completely…perform the rites…cross the t’s and dot the i’s. Only then is the catechumen “ready” to step into the font and be made new in the waters of baptism. But clearly–at least in the case of the eunuch–love can also happen in an instant.)
So the more I ponder this question – weighing karma v. grace – the more I’m inclined to see grace truly as Good News, much better news in fact than its transactional spiritual counterpart.
One of my favorite spiritual gurus, the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, has a rather poetic way of putting it. He writes in Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self,
The goodness of God fills all the gaps of the universe, without discrimination or preference. God is the gratuity of absolutely everything. The space in between everything is not space at all but Spirit. God is the “goodness glue” that holds the dark and light of things together… When we say that Christ “paid the debt once and for all,” it simply means that God’s job is to make up for all the deficiencies in the universe. What else would God do?
Our job, it seems, is mostly to convince ourselves that the deal God offers is better than karma, even though it might offend our ‘can’t-get-something-for-nothing’ sensibilities. It seems just too good to be true. Kinda like the food God offers: ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever…’ (John 6:51)
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.