A Partner with Grace
by Gigi Ross
When I was eight years old, my favorite amusement park ride was the roller coaster. I would laugh nonstop as the cars plunged down the steep slope; I could fall with them again and again. By the time I was eighteen, that same descent made my heart and stomach stay at the top of the slope, not catching up with the rest of me until the cars reached the bottom.
At the end of August 2006, after six years on the Shalem office staff, I decided to leave and hitched a ride on a different kind of roller coaster. Part of my intent was to see if I could live the wisdom of Matthew 6:24-37, trusting that if I directed my orientation toward God, God would take care of the rest. I took for my motto a saying attributed to Lao Tzu, “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” My one task: to do whatever I was given that resonated with me, whether or not it provided income. This was my way of discerning where I was being led. The journey was as thrilling and as fearful as those contrasting roller coaster rides of my youth. And this past spring I was feeling both at the same time.
There is a phrase, “Pray as if everything depended on God, and act as if everything depended on you,” sometimes attributed to Ignatius of Loyola. Some scholars say he wrote the opposite: “Pray as if everything depended on you, and act as if everything depended on God.” Yet, neither version matched my experience during this time of learning to live in trust, and that was a major lesson for me.
Maybe it wasn’t just my adventure. Maybe it was God’s, also. Instead of separate spheres for prayer and action in which I’m responsible for one and God for the other, I experienced a mutuality in our relationship, something like what Jesus experiences as missing in Mark 6:1-6 when he goes back to his home town and can’t do any miracles there because of the townspeople’s lack of trust.
By last May, I had to discern whether to move from my apartment because I could no longer afford the rent. On April 26, I learned that a decision about a job that I felt called to wouldn’t be made until the end of June. With that news went my hope that I would have the income to pay for my living expenses, including the rent. My question to God was, “Now what?”
Then a story that Parker Palmer tells about a wood-carver came to me. A prince commissions a woodcarver to make a bell stand. The woodcarver can’t refuse the prince without being executed. Also, the woodcarver knows that if the prince doesn’t like the finished product, he will be beheaded. So facing this life-and-death situation, he fasts until he forgets himself, the prince, everything, until he is empty enough for the bell stand to be made through him.
I found myself asking what fasting and praying would be for me. I decided it didn’t mean not eating because my impulse to not eat came from fear of not having enough money in the future. In my experience my fears tend to show me where I lack trust. So I kept to my original plans, taking on the tasks that I’d been given to do instead of giving myself over to worrying, planning, or strategizing about survival. I bought a meatball sub for lunch, did some work, then took some time to simply do nothing.
I sat in my rocking chair and looked at the trees outside, letting my mind empty, letting the thoughts come and go without judging them. After sitting, and even before I took time for prayer afterward, I knew I had the clarity I needed to move forward. I needed to wait until I had to make a decision and trust that, when the time came, I would know what to do. After prayer I went to get the mail. I received two checks that I had been expecting but hadn’t known when they would come. With those checks I had enough for the June rent and I wouldn’t have to face this decision again for another month. The next day I got a call about some temporary work that felt right to accept.
God had taken care of June and had moved on to July. God and I were partners in this adventure. My spiritual director called it cooperating with grace, my job being to trust and to be like the crane in the Taoist story. When it’s hungry, it doesn’t go diving into the waters looking for fish. It just stands where it is, open, aware, alert, in the present moment. When a fish swims by, it nabs it. If it’s still hungry, it continues in open awareness, alertness, and being present, then grabs the next fish that swims by. No anxiety, for it knows the waters of life will give it what it needs. When it’s not hungry, it remains in that open awareness and alertness that is contemplative awareness.
While such awareness is a gift, I believe that at my truest and most authentic I am always in the contemplative present. And that seems to be part of the mutuality. My true self always cooperating with grace, living with the faith that allows Christ to do miracles, and God’s love always manifesting through my true self in often hidden ways and forever supplying my needs. When I remember this partnership I am following Matthew 6:33 and seeking God’s Kingdom above all else.