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Saved by Grace
by Michael Maciel

Having grown up Catholic, I have always been fascinated by the Protestant saying, "You are saved by grace, not by works." Understandably, this was not stressed in school, or maybe it was, and I just missed it. Either way, it has always been a mystery to me - until recently - because now I can see that the word grace has more than one meaning. I mean, aside from the multitude of theological wranglings it has been subjected to, grace can also mean fluidity or elegance of movement, as in gracefulness on the dance floor. And since this definition is much more down to earth than most theological speculations, I figure it stands a much better chance of being right.

I suppose some people think Fred Astaire was born graceful, but realistically, he must have spent endless hours practicing and perfecting his dancing. The same with Magic Johnson - I'm sure he's coordinated, but it must have taken years for him to earn the title of "graceful". I know St. Paul said that we're saved by grace and not by works, but obviously work does have some part to play in our salvation. So, what is it?

Having been an athlete myself, I know what it is to have a breakthrough in one's ability and technique. It's a moment when all of your efforts and practice come together in an epiphany of naturalness. You look like you were born with it, but everyone who has received this gift knows that no amount of effort will ensure that it will be given. It seems to come entirely on its own and in its own time.

This is true, because some of the hardest working athletes never achieve gracefulness, even after years of trying. It's heartbreaking to see. But when someone has it, you'll hear people say things like "he is so gifted", or "she makes it look so easy". Their best and most brilliant moves "just happen", apparently without any effort. But if the graceful few had never worked to develop their talents, would they ever have become graceful?

The famous saxophone player, Charlie "Bird" Parker, understood how grace does, but doesn't, come from hard work. He was once asked, "How do you do that?" He said, "First you learn your instrument real well...then you forget all that [stuff] and wail!" Sounds reasonable to me. It seems forgetting plays a key role here, whereas thinking about it just trips us up.

Thinking about it is the "works" part of the grace equation - we can't think about what we're doing and be graceful at the same time. But...we can't do what we're doing unless we've put in the hours and hours it takes to develop the necessary skill. Back then, we had to think about it - a lot! We had to think and re-think it, do and redo, over and over again, until one day something just clicked, and we no longer had to try. We were saved from all that effort-ing, not by working harder, but by not working. We had to let go of trying. You had to surrender to the built-in processes. Grace came, and it was wonderful.

When we're tested - spiritually - no one ever tells us, "Ok...get're gonna be tested now!" No, that's the ego's idea of what important soul moments are like. The truth is that there is seldom any fanfare. We are tested in little things and without warning. You see, it's not what we do by trying that counts - it's what we do automatically. It's what we do without thinking about it, without wondering whether or not we should do it. This is what shows how much work we've put into right action, how much we've practiced doing the right thing. And ironically, the harder we try to attain it, the more elusive it becomes. Even if we think we're doing great, others are calling us a phoney behind our back. You see...our accomplishments haven't become ours. We're still reaching for them - and reaching is so ungraceful.

Somewhere, somehow, someone decides if we're ready for the next step on our ever-evolving spiritual path. They look at the lot of us and say, "Let's save that one over there for the advanced class. We'll let those others go around a few more times until they're ready to move on." To the others, it might seem like hell, but it's really more like purgatory. Buddhists call this condition samsara, the continual round of death and rebirth. The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, said that reincarnation's counterpart in the West is this notion of "purgatory". Well...I guess they had to come up with something different - for the sake of originality(?)

When Whoever it is looks down and says, "Let's save that one..." the one chosen doesn't have a clue as to what's about to happen to her. All she knows is that she has to go to work again. It's no longer easy! All of a sudden, her life gets turned upside down, and she has to learn how to handle it all over again. If you ask her, she'll say, "You know...every time I figure something out, it all changes. I finally feel like I've mastered my job, and I get transferred! I finally figure out how to be married, and BOOM -- we have a baby, and I have to develop my parenting skills. What's up with that? I'll have this life-altering spiritual experience, and the next day I'm the same ol' ditz! When am I just going to arrive? Is it always going to be like this?"

Well...there's good news and bad news. The bad news is yes, it's always going to be like this. BUT, the good news is that we're always stepping up onto the thing we just got a handle on. We are ever and always advancing to a higher level of consciousness and capability every time we master a lesson. From each new level of attainment, however, the previous tasks are no longer visible, because they are inside us! We have incorporated them into our soul experience. They are now the trees of the forest we can't see. The skills of consciousness we learned from these experiences are now automatic to us -- they no longer require any thinking on our part -- they just happen "gracefully".

Everyone has something, or many things, that they have mastered and others that they have not. If you want to know what yours are, just look at the overall quality of your life. If you're not living in a cardboard box in an alley, you know you've mastered the life lesson called "home". If you're falling in and out of relationships more often than you'd like, then you know you're working on "partnership". If you're stressed, and your health is failing sooner than you think it should, maybe you're learning the principle of "elimination", or, how to say No. Whatever it is, and wherever you are with it, it's just right for you.

Here's the really important thing, the lesson within the lesson: the only variable in this learning program of ours is TIME. It doesn't have to take forever! In fact, how much time it takes is almost entirely up to us. The only lesson we need to learn is to learn our lessons quickly! What gets in our way is wanting to hold onto something "other than" the thing we should be working on. We say, "Oh, that...I'll get to that. Right now, I want to dothis!" "This" is what keeps us where we are. We need to let go of this -- just open up our hands and let it drop! It's as easy as that.

To walk gracefully, we have to let ourselves fall forward. To live gracefully, we have to be willing to take the plunge, to step off the edge, to fall into the arms of Christ! As we let go and accept the fruits of our labors, life will work in us, and add to us, giving us grace-full-ness beyond our wildest dreams!