Faith and grace

Like many other people, I’ve been working hard to sever my life from Facebook due to frustrations about the abuse of power that company is guilty of, but Facebook has its claws sunk so deeply into our online lives it’s almost impossible. I logged in the other day to find someone’s contact info and was greeted by a Facebook “memory” of what I’d posted on the same day three years ago. It was a quote from Thomas Merton, from his book “New Seeds of Contemplation,” too long to replicate here, but Merton, in his inimitably frank way, begins by telling us this: “Place no hope in the feeling of assurance, in spiritual comfort. You may well have to get along without this.” Harsh. Very harsh. But also very true. 

Merton goes on to tell us that spiritual comfort might be nice, but what really sustains us is faith: faith that must be “deep enough to subsist when we are weak, when we are sick, when our self-confidence is gone, when our self-respect is gone.” Again, harsh. But also true. “True faith,” Merton concludes, “must be able to go on even when everything else is taken away from us.”

I was surprised to find I’d posted this quote late in 2018, when so much seemed to be ahead of us compared to where we find ourselves now, two years into a global pandemic. To be sure, the church and the world both had major issues in 2018, but after two years in which I’ve not been able to go to Mass very often due to an immunocompromised family member and a high-risk job, during which my prayer group of ten years fell apart and I was barely able to see friends who sustain my own connections to spirituality, I find myself still surprised daily that my faith has grown rather than withered away. It’s not a faith in religious institutions or even individuals, but instead a faith in the sustaining power of grace. 

Grace isn’t something we talk about often in the Catholic church, but it’s something a friend who grew up Pentacostal also talks about as what sustains him. It’s something my Quaker friends often mention, and something I find amply demonstrated by the Jewish members of my family. Grace is the animating force of God’s love, and grace doesn’t care who’s a “good” person and who’s a “bad” one, but instead gives us the fortitude to forgive ourselves and one another. And that in turn is what gives us the kind of sustaining faith Merton is talking about: not how well we follow one rule or another, but how open we are to finding grace in one another and in the world around us. 

It’s a good thing to remember, too, for anyone who struggles with mental health, because depression and anxiety can also make us feel like everything has been stripped from us. Sometimes it takes us being stripped down to our most hopeless and weakened states, however, for us to acknowledge that we do have faith, and that faith will sustain us in the unknown days of the future. 

Now I can understand why that quote meant something to me in the waning days of 2018, even before so much more would be taken from all of us. I’m still going to get off Facebook one day soon, but if Merton’s quote is the only thing that comes with me when I leave, that will be OK.


Kaya Oakes is an essayist and journalist from Oakland, California. Her fifth book, The Defiant Middle: How Women Claim Life’s In-Betweens to Remake the World, was released in November, 2021. She teaches writing at UC Berkeley.

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