There But for the Grace of God

“Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”

Wm. Paul Young

One afternoon this week, my seven-year-old and I drove down a city street lined with mansions. We stopped at a traffic light, and my daughter screeched, “Mom! What is that man doing?”

I looked up. A middle-aged man was pawing through a garbage can, grabbing food that was most likely thrown away by students from the nearby magnet high school.

I grew up in New York City in the seventies, so homeless people have been part of my consciousness for long as I can remember. Women covered in dirty blankets, shuffling through Grand Central Station. Shadowy men huddled over burning trashcans along the Bowery. Mothers clutching babies, elderly men begging. I remember them all.

But my daughter is growing up in a different kind of city, in a different type neighborhood, in a different type of school than mine back in 1976 when I was seven years old.

I told her that the man was looking for food.

“Why doesn’t he go to a food kitchen?” she asked, thinking about all the sandwiches she’s made at school for the homeless over the years.

I explained that you can’t live in a food kitchen all of the time. And then I said something I haven’t said in ages: “There but for the grace of God, goes you, goes I.”

I learned these words from my Irish grandmother, Mary. Mary never said a bad thing about anyone. Other people’s business was none of her business. If she didn’t have anything nice to say, she just didn’t say anything at all. And most of all, There but for the grace of God . . .

My daughter understood. “We’re very lucky, mom.”

I agreed.

“Mom, maybe we should make some more sandwiches and bring them to the pantry,” she replies.

“Yes,” I say. My life is filled with so many graces. Mary Oliver wrote, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

Little graces rise out of the darkness, tiny pinpricks of color and light. Without the darkness I would hardly notice them.

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