Grace is the Time, is the Place, is the Motion

On Sunday night I went for a walk with my beloved in the beautiful evening light. The rain had cleared, and the low summer sun was illuminating everything in a lovely dreamy gold. The sort of light that makes everything look as if it is lit from within. And because everything was freshly washed, it all looked brighter. The scent of roses and mock-orange filled the air, and the birds were singing. The trees hung over the path and formed a tunnel of green leaves.

At moments like that, when divinity shines within all things, I feel reconnected, refreshed, renewed. You might call it a moment of grace.

Grass Illuminated by the Setting Sun. Photo by MemoryCatcher. CC0 Public Domain.

Grass illuminated by the setting Sun. Photo by MemoryCatcher on Pixabay. CC0 Public Domain.

Reclaiming Grace

Can we reclaim the word “grace” from its Christian connotations? Certainly. Grace means something to be thankful for, something that is praiseworthy, desirable, elegant, right, and fitting.

grace (n.) late 12c., “God’s unmerited favor, love, or help,” from Old French grace “pardon, divine grace, mercy; favor, thanks; elegance, virtue” (12c., Modern French grâce), from Latin gratia “favor, esteem, regard; pleasing quality, good will, gratitude” (source of Italian grazia, Spanish gracia; in Church use translating Greek kharisma), from gratus “pleasing, agreeable,” from PIE *gwreto-, suffixed form of root *gwere (3) “to favor” (source also of Sanskrit grnati “sings, praises, announces,” Lithuanian giriu “to praise, celebrate,” Avestan gar “to praise”).

Sense of “virtue” is early 14c., that of “beauty of form or movement, pleasing quality” is mid-14c. In classical sense, “one of the three sister goddesses (Latin Gratiæ, Greek Kharites), bestowers of beauty and charm,” it is first recorded in English 1579 in Spenser. In music, “an embellishment not essential to the melody or harmony,” 1650s. As the name of the short prayer that is said before or after a meal (early 13c.; until 16c. usually graces) it has a sense of “gratitude.” As a title of honor, c. 1500.

The etymology of the word grace includes Greek charisma:

charisma (n.) “gift of leadership, power of authority,” c. 1930, from German, used in this sense by Max Weber (1864-1920) in “Wirtschaft u. Gesellschaft” (1922), from Greek kharisma “favor, divine gift,” from kharizesthai “to show favor to,” from kharis “grace, beauty, kindness” (Charis was the name of one of the three attendants of Aphrodite) related to khairein “to rejoice at,” from PIE root *gher- (5) “to desire, like” (see hortatory). More mundane sense of “personal charm” recorded by 1959.

Earlier, the word had been used in English with a sense of “grace, talent from God” (1875), directly from Latinized Greek; and in the form charism (plural charismata) it is attested with this sense in English from 1640s. Middle English, meanwhile, had karisme “spiritual gift, divine grace” (c. 1500).

And Charis was one of the three attendants of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. These attendants were known as the Three Graces:

In Greek mythology, a Charis (/ˈkrɪs/; Greek: Χάρις, pronounced [kʰáris]) or Grace is one of three or more minor goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility, together known as the Charites /ˈkærtz/ (Χάριτες [kʰáritɛːs]) or Graces. The usual list, from youngest to oldest is Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Mirth”), and Thalia (“Good Cheer”). In Roman mythology they were known as the Gratiae, the “Graces”. In some variants, Charis was one of the Graces and was not the singular form of their name.

Grace is also related to renewal and a sense of being right with the world and the divine. It isn’t on a list of ancient Roman virtues – the nearest concept is Laetitia, meaning “Joy, Gladness, The celebration of thanksgiving, often of the resolution of crisis.” I could certainly settle for Laetitia as a name for the feeling I was having.

But I am reassured by the idea that the Three Graces or Charites were definitely pagan. Among the Lacedaemonians, there were two Graces, Cleta (“Sound” or “Renowned”) and Phaenna (“Light” or “Bright”). The fact that a feeling of grace can be created by harmonious sounds and soothing light makes these names seem particularly apt. Splendor, Good Cheer, and Mirth also seem apt descriptors. And the more modern meaning of elegance and harmony also fits in with these ancient concepts of grace. I can think of several people whom I think of as being graceful in the way they interact with others.

So I think we can reclaim the word grace to mean the beauty and harmony and radiance of Nature and the feelings of awe and gratitude, wonder and joy and healing evoked by that beauty.

And we need these moments of blessing and grace to rest and renew when the magic runs out, when we are heartbroken by senseless slaughter, when sections of the Pagan community are being disappointing about gender.


November Gratitude: Initiatory Communities

This November, Patheos Pagan is observing the Thanksgiving season with a gratitude series: celebrating the Pagan or polytheist colleagues, friends, groups, and communities that make us glad to be part of the movement. Aine Llewellyn, Nimue BrownJulian BetkowskiJason Mankey, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, John Halstead, and Drea Parker have also contributed — I invite you to go read their contributions. But for now, here’s mine!


Eastern Passage, Knowth – image by Przemysław Sakrajda

Out of all my experiences in Pagan groups, the one that has moved me the most deeply has been the practice of initiation. I’ve gone through a few formal initiations — some performed by loved ones with whom I practiced regularly, some by a mix of my close loved ones and their loved ones, who had traveled for the occasion.

In each of these experiences, though, I’ve been overwhelmed by the care, attention, and sheer effort that those initiatory teams put out on my behalf. My initiators memorized pages upon pages of liturgy and embodied it with both priestly and theatrical skill; prepared gorgeous altars and planned ritual encounters with Neolithic tombs and stone circles; sang me beautiful songs; showered me with gifts; celebrated me, frightened me, challenged me, praised me, and in all ways showed me that they’d spent days or even months considering what words or actions might support my spiritual growth.

In ordinary American life, there are few opportunities to receive this depth of loving attention. The only time I have experienced it elsewhere was on my wedding day, when friends and family came together to bless and celebrate with me and my partner. Since my friends and I tend to be a bunch of do-it-yourselfers, we had some limited professional help, but a great many of the organizing, cooking, decorating, and ritualizing tasks were performed by volunteers in a concrete outpouring of love so profound that my husband and I almost felt high on the energy. To be so tenderly cared for by a community as one goes through an important rite of passage is an experience so moving and transformative that I find myself at a loss for words.

To me, marriage is a sacrament partially because it is a moment when divine love can be felt most clearly, both between oneself and a partner, and between couple and community. Initiation, at least as it is practiced in the Craft, not only binds the initiate to the family of practitioners, but it is also an occasion when the love between the Gods and the initiate can be felt most intimately. Like a wedding, when an initiation goes well, it seals the relationship and acts as a spell of intention for the future. To be initiated with care and skill by a loving community is a rare and precious gift.

I am grateful beyond measure for that gift, for the insights I gained through the act of initiation, for the profound transformation it has produced in my life, and above all for the loving hands and hearts that brought me into divine presence and accepted my commitment. Initiations are meant to make new family members, and I know only too well that they don’t always take; but by grace and luck and the generosity of my loved ones, I have found what I sought there. I can only hope that when it comes my turn to pass on that gift, that I will be able to do it with the same insight and love that my initiators did.

May the Gods continue to bless our initiatory communities, that others may also experience love so deeply! And to my initiators — thank you, thank you, thank you.