Many years ago, if you had asked me the definition of “grace” I would have mumbled something around letting your food get cold and changed the subject.
I’ve since learned differently. Grace is complicated, and also incredibly simple. While often associated with Christianity, it actually predates it, with the Latin gratus meaning “pleasing” or “thankful.” In the Romance languages you say it all the time — gracias, grazie. Still, in English, grace has entered modern thought largely through the Christian definition: “The unmerited favor of God.” To secularize it, grace is simply “unmerited favor.”
Unmerited favor. Think of it this way: A good thing that happens, which you didn’t work for and don’t deserve. Like luck, but one step beyond. Have you ever had an experience like that? You oversleep on the morning of that big interview. You rush to get there on time. You are still 10 minutes late. As you breathlessly sit down and try to compose yourself, the interviewer — also frantic — appears at the door and apologizes for keeping you waiting. That’s not just luck, that’s grace. Unmerited favor.
Religious or not, we’ve all been the recipient of grace in our lives.
As I age, I have slowly learned to look out for it and appreciate it more. In my fifth decade I finally understand why those words of thankfulness said around the dinner table are sometimes called “Saying grace.” There is, after all, more than a little unmerited favor that has gotten us to that moment with the bounty in front of us.
I saw the cleverest concept around saying grace recently in Northern England. I was in the tiny hamlet of Bishop Auckland in County Durham. The town is named for, and houses, the grand Auckland Castle, which dates back 800 years. This building was built by the Church of England and served as one of the homes of the Bishop of the Northern Counties. It is a vast and historically significant structure. And yet, because of its status as a private residence owned by the Church, its interior has mostly gone unseen by anyone other than invited guests.
Entry gates to Auckland Castle
But that is all about to change.
In 2012, the Church transferred the castle and surrounding grounds to a charitable trust overseen by The Auckland Project. Currently under restoration, The Auckland Project will open the Castle to the public in 2019. While it is not yet open, I was extremely lucky to get a preview recently, along with Tony Barnes, Tessitura Director of European Operations. We donned hard hats and steel-toed shoes and roamed the interior of this stunning building, with members of the Auckland Project staff telling stories along the way.
Tony Barnes, Director of European Operations, ready for a hardhat tour
The inside of Bishop Auckland Castle is vast, gorgeous, ornate, and a home fit for a Prince Bishop, as he was called.
But for me, like anyone with a 12-year-old still inside their soul, the part of the tour I found most fascinating was those unexpected things they’ve discovered as they renovate. They have peeled away hundreds of years of plaster, wallpaper, false walls, and much else. Time and again during the tour, the site manager would point out something and say, “we had no idea that was behind there.” Throughout the tour, Adolescent Me was having a proverbial cow. THIS IS SO COOL!
Wallpaper dating from the 1700s. An example of the many treasures they have found during the conservation of Auckland Castle.
But back to Grace. My favorite moment of the tour was learning about what they found between the old kitchen and the old dining room on the ground floor. As part of the restoration, they took down a more recent wall to reveal the original footprint of that part of the building. When the newer wall came down, they found a Servery — a series of hatches that would have been used to pass food from the kitchen through to the dining room. They had no idea it was there.
Recently discovered and dating from 1500, this Tudor servery was used to pass food from the kitchen to the dining room at Auckland Castle. Photo © The Auckland Project.
It was inscribed with the date of 1500 (during the reign of King Henry VII). And there was more.
Carved into the wood atop the Servery was a Latin inscription: “Est deo Gracia,” which means “The Grace of God” or “Thanks be to God.” Historians believe this meant that as the food passed from the kitchen to the dining room, it was being blessed. Like being pre-approved for a loan on a house, this food was being pre-graced so the Bishop and his guests could get right down to eating. That clever Bishop had figured out how to say grace AND keep the food warm!
Detail of the woodwork from the Servery with the words “Est deo Gracia,” which means “Thanks be to God.”
While pre-gracing food likely saved some time for that busy Bishop, there is something to be said for the time taken to be thankful. And it isn’t just me. Happiness researchers will be the first to say that simply being grateful actually makes people happier (The words grace and gratitude both come from that same Latin gratus). “Gratitude journaling” is now a frequent suggestion made by mental health professionals for people suffering from depression, anxiety and much else. In essence, whatever your religious status, studies show that saying grace is actually good for you.
As a child, while my family was not overly religious, we did have a tradition around the Thanksgiving table, where we would each say what we were thankful for. I seem to recall my brothers and I being thankful for such important things as video games and fast cars. But then, my now dearly departed Grandmother would say hers. She never diverted from script: “I am thankful that I have the most wonderful family in the world.” She always went last, she said it with quiet conviction, and then we all tucked in without further comment.
As a twelve-year-old boy, I was just thankful that she kept it short — the turkey was getting cold.
As a 47-year-old, I get emotional just writing her words on my laptop. Seventeen years after she left us, I thank her for all that she did for me and my family without ever expecting anything in return. If that isn’t the definition of Grace — unmerited favor — I don’t know what is.
May our lives be graced, from time to time, with unexpected discoveries and unmerited favor.
Top photo by Pit-yacker — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7629305