Means of grace is a technical theological term. It refers to the media through which grace—or the blessings of encounter with God’s presence—comes to us. At the top of the list in any standard theological text will be the sacraments. For Protestants, these include two things, baptism and communion, while Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians add to these five others: reconciliation (or confession), confirmation, anointing the sick, the ordination of clergy, and Christian marriage.
But after years of asking people how they experience the divine, I am impressed with the fact the list of ways in which God comes to us is much longer and much more diverse. Some have told me of the remarkable openness to God they experience when walking in the woods. Many tell me how silence and solitude provide them with their most powerful experiences of God’s presence; others, how pain or suffering allows them uniquely to meet God. An eight-year-old girl recently told me she senses the presence of her guardian angel with her whenever she remembers what her daddy did to her—the same angelic presence that was there for her in the actual sexual abuse. Yet others have been bold enough to confess it is in their sin that they have their most immediate encounters with Grace. The list goes on and on.
For myself, the Eucharist remains a place where I often meet God in uniquely powerful ways. And Scriptures, particularly when engaged in the life-giving format of lectio divina, also often serve as a special place of encountering God. But one much more ordinary component of my regular day provides the most usual place of encounter with God: the people who cross my path.
This shouldn’t be a surprise because there has never been a person born who does not image her or his Creator. Sometimes this imaging isn’t obvious to me. Then I need to pray that I may see the person as a daughter or son of God, through the eyes of the love of God. But when I am open to encountering God in the routine events of my day, it is in the people who cross my path that I most regularly do so. Some are not attractive; in fact, some are downright annoying. But seeing God in them does not require a romantic, Pollyannaish view of people or the world. All it requires is openness to God, and with that, God suddenly begins to appear everywhere.
Seeing God in others is perhaps somewhat easier for me because I am blessed by being able to spend much of my day with people in moments of intense spirit longing and soul distress. The sacred space involved in relationships of spiritual direction and psychotherapy allow me to be often with people who dare to take bold and courageous steps of openness to life. They choose to embrace their longings, not backing away from them even when they seem disruptive and fraught with potential disappointment, instead daring to believe that their deepest longings reveal the presence and stirring of the Spirit of God. They choose honesty, daring to face reality rather than the illusory comfort of their habitual self-delusions and deceptions. They choose the way of trust, openness, and willingness. In short, they choose life.
Choosing life is always a movement of openness to God. And each time I am blessed to see another make this choice, God touches me through that person. Regardless of whether these people know the source of life by name or, like the citizens of Athens encountered by Paul, simply opened themselves in trust to an unnamed, unknown Source of Life, God is their source of life. All life comes from and points back to God. There can be no movement toward life, growth, healing, or well-being without the enabling presence of God. And that God, my God, reaches out through people in that choice of life and touches me with a hand of blessing each time I witness these moments.
I have come to believe that everything is a potential means of grace. We live in a God-saturated universe. God is continually coming to us. God is always with us. If our spiritual eyes were truly open and we were fully spiritually awake, we would recognize that God is in everything. This includes good experiences and bad experiences, the beautiful and the ugly, the serene and the horrific. This does not mean that God causes the painful or evil experiences or events. But, as St. Paul reminds us, “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, NRSVScripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.).
I am not saying that everyone, in every circumstance, should expect to know and experientially receive God’s grace. Quite the contrary, in the midst of traumatic or painful experiences it is often impossible to discern God’s presence because the magnitude of the trauma sometimes becomes totally preoccupying. But it is the experience of many that, given time for healing and prayerful reflection, it is possible to see God’s presence even in the midst of these darkest moments of our lives.
The liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church speaks of the Spirit of God as being “present in all places and filling all things.” This profound affirmation is absolutely true. The Creator God is not detached from creation. Through the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit, God is present and active in all of creation and in the totality of our life experiences. Grace is constantly coming to us. Our challenge is to realize how much we resist the intrusion into the kingdom of self this coming of grace represents. Our challenge is to learn to open ourselves in attentive trust and willingness.
Without question, God can come to us through Scripture, preaching, communal worship, and all the other traditional means of grace. But God is not limited to these “religious” media. The God who created all things is part of the warp and woof of all things. God has come to us. God is continually coming to us. May we awaken to this reality and learn truly to open ourselves to this God in trust.