Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Reclaiming Grace

April 21, 2024

Malcolm Guite

Every artist loves their medium: painters love paint and potters love clay. As a poet, I love words. I love their shapes, their sounds, but most of all their meanings, their history, their miraculous power to kindle the imagination. It’s no wonder that the early English poets thought of our vocabulary as a treasure house. The Beowulf poet called it ’the word-hoard’. ‘Lie down in the word-hoard’, advises Seamus Heaney in his poem North, ’trust to the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known.’

In this column I shall be lifting a few treasures out of the word-hoard and inviting you to marvel at them and love them with me: old words that have fallen out of use and need reclaiming, simple words like ‘love’ and ‘truth’, that sometimes seem devalued from overuse, and need to be re-polished, reclaimed, redeemed. Holy words like ‘hope’ and ‘joy’ and ‘grace’, that have been misused, abused, undermined, and need to be rescued and renewed. I will write this column with the same conviction that makes me dare to be a poet: the conviction that all the words we use are older and wiser than we are!


Sometimes, by delving deep into the roots of a word, tracing a little of its history, following the stream of its meanings back to their source in earlier languages, we can uncover and enjoy beautiful new facets of the truth and wisdom that particular word can bring to us. We see all the myriad connections that go to make up the miracle of language. This is certainly true of the little word grace, one of the most beautiful words we have.

This lovely little word came into Middle English from Old French grace and which itself derives from the Latin words gratia, meaning kindness, favour, beneficence, and gratus meaning ‘pleasing’. Its Latin root means it is related to all those little words that mean something is given freely –gratis -and also all those words across the European languages which mean thank you or thankfulness: gracias in Spanish grazie in Italian. So there is a deeply rooted link between those two important English words: graceful and grateful; they spring from the same stem. I have certainly noticed that those who give thanks, those who remember every day something for which to be grateful, also have a certain grace about all they do and are gracious alike to friend and stranger.

Even in secular language the deepest roots of the word grace are in kindness, good will, esteem and thankfulness. But as that stem blossoms and flowers into all its associated words, we become aware of a kind of quiet beauty about this little word grace, which gives us lovely words like graceful and gracious. Even in ordinary English grace carries something of abundance, bounty, fulness, even of some unexpected additional beauty, as in the musician’s term a grace note, or our own phrase about being in someone’s good graces or the phrase which suggests the free bounty of the monarch towards a subject: grace and favour, and of course the way grace is also the name for the simple little thanksgiving we make before meals.

Indeed, it is when we turn to the Scriptural and specifically Christian meanings of the word grace, when we let grace draw meaning from even deeper roots than the linguistic ones we have been exploring, that a true, beautiful, generous unstoppable love flows into that word ‘grace’, and out through that word to those of us who use it. The New Testament Greek word for grace is charis which means the completely free, unmerited gift of God’s love and favour. Charis itself came from the Greek verb chairo, which means to rejoice. Just as something given free and ‘gratis’ leads to gratitude, so this sheer, unmerited, unstoppable love of God overflows into rejoicing, and more than rejoicing. To have received grace, to be full of grace almost always means that we ourselves become gracious, generous people, – we want to pass on what we have received. Indeed, Jesus himself says ‘freely you have received, freely give’. So, unsurprisingly, that Greek word chairo, the root of charis, grace, finds its way back into English in the word charity. But once you know the Greek word for grace is charis you see it at the root of so many other vital words, words like charism, a particular gift and calling, charismatic, both in the sense of someone who is gifted and attractive, graceful and gracious, but also in the sense of a whole spiritual movement that wants to be open to all the gifts and graces of the Spirit. And of course, charis is at the root of eucharist, the great thanksgiving to God in which, under the signs of bread and wine, we receive afresh Christ himself who is the living embodiment, the full gift to us of God’s gracious love. It is no wonder that one of the church’s definitions of the mysterious sacrament of the eucharist, is that it is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’.

But let’s turn now from language to life and see that little word ‘grace’ at work.

When I was a Parish Priest I had the privilege of preparing couples for marriage. My way of doing this was to go through the marriage service word by word with the couple and open out not only what it meant in general, but what it meant or could come to mean to that particular couple. Now early in the Preface, which the priest reads aloud at the beginning of the service, to declare to all what Christian Marriage is, comes this sentence:

‘Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God.’ 

I would pause at this point so that we could open out the two key elements in this sentence – on the one hand that marriage is a part of the created natural order, but on the other that it can be a means of knowing and receiving grace, which is something of the divine flowing into nature. But I would always ask the couple themselves what they understood by the word grace. Once I remember the bride-to-be said something unexpected and powerful. She said ‘Grace is when God doesn’t give up on us even when we’ve given up on ourselves. Grace is God’s refusal to accept the ultimacy of failure in a person’s life.’ I said to her ‘that’s one of the best definitions of grace I’ve ever heard. Tell me how you came to understand grace in that way’. And then suddenly the whole conversation opened up. The woman hesitated a moment, and then took the plunge. She explained that she was a recovering alcoholic, and that there had been a time when she just wanted to lie down in the gutter and die, but something wouldn’t let her. Something pushed and prodded her to pick herself up and try one more time, and she had now come to know that ‘something’ was God’s loving grace. She had come to know it through a recovery program and also through the love of the man who now intended to marry her. I knew then that I had no need to explain to them, as I explained to others, that Marriage was a sacrament, that just as the ‘ordinary’ bread and wine, lifted to God and prayer, could become by his blessing, something far more than just bread and wine, but a sign, and indeed a channel through which God’s love and grace become a part of who we are,  so, just as surely as in communion, in the sacrament of marriage we take, not bread and wine, but a man and a woman, and ask that they too may be signs and channels to each other of God’s grace, the love that doesn’t give up. I didn’t need to explain it to them because I could see from everything they said that their relationship was already sacramental!

I think I had some memory of that amazing conversation when, many years later, I ended my poem ‘Ordinary Saints: Epilogue’, with these lines:

We turn, amazed,

To see the ones beside us, face to face,

As living icons, sacraments of grace.’

Featured image courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and used with her glad permission for Cultivating.


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  1. Linda Hanford says:

    Dearest Malcolm,
    I am that woman, and I recall that conversation as if it were yesterday. It’s now 31 years later, and Tim and I are still going strong in our marriage. And I am 34 years sober. I recall also another quotation that my beloved father read at our blessing: “Thus gratitude leads to grace, and grace leads to gracefulness – the simple, unforced love of one for another who knows what it is to need love and acceptance”. Thank you for giving us such a graceful start to our married life. Linda Hanford

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