The Bones of Grace

Posted on in On Our Radar by Mark Nepo


My wife, Susan, was ill last spring with a serious stomach flu that took us to the emergency room. Tending her brought me closer to the paradox of true care: that giving our all is what matters, though we can’t take another’s suffering from them. Yet this awkward tending means everything. On the eighth day, after fixing her pillow and rubbing her head, we heard a bird we didn’t recognize, and that sweet, short warble brought us back into life.

We enter the sanctity of our being in the simplest moments—while playing with animals and watching birds fly, or standing in the dark awash with the shimmer of the moon, or watching a loved one wake into their truth. These uncluttered openings are the bare bones of grace. We could name grace as the unnamable presence that lives under all we do or aspire to.

The word grace comes from the Latin, meaning “thankful.” Gratitude opens us to grace. Thankfulness lets in the energies of life that surround us. It takes a deeper kind of effort to live what is ours to live while staying open to the mysterious forces that surround us. As the Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah says:

“Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen. It is the effort to be aware and awake each moment.”

Grace is what wears down the face we show the world, until leaning into what we’re given without a mask is the work of the soul. In time, we’re destined to lose some of what is dear to us, which is only tragic if we forget that the dearness lives in us. And for all our shouting, we land in silence, and for all our barking about God and truth, we settle, if blessed,
into living simply by just being true, the way a mountain is true.

A few years ago I was in Spain and went to visit Santa Maria de Montserrat, the legendary monastery set a thousand feet up the mountain. The pueblo-like cells and ornate basilica are wedged into the summit, carved in stone almost a thousand years ago.

I wandered about the monastery, wondering, “How did they build so far up? Why did they stay?” They were neither far enough away from the living, nor any closer to Heaven. I took a tram even higher, where the first huts were built. There, I found telling cracks in the stone. They’d been slowly widened by hand into rough troughs that would steer and collect rainwater. The early monks lived off what the heavens provided through the cracks they worked so hard to widen.


Love works this way, slowly widening our ability to care so we can receive water from the heavens. The widening of our cracks is relentless work, but collecting water from the heavens is how we receive grace.

I was surprised to see wildflowers growing so high up in the cracks of these stones. Do they survive being so exposed because they’re low to the ground, because they’re grounded? Can we survive being so exposed by being as fierce and fragile as a mountain wildflower?

When grounded and bare, we can do small things with love and add light to the world. Given time, care turns into light, which helps all things grow. Care turning into light is the photosynthesis of grace. When we finally step toward another to clean her cut or soothe his mind, we break the illusion that we’re different by living out our care, and light moves between us. Caring for anything lessens our loneliness.

Consider Trevor, a quiet man who was never comfortable with others, yet felt lonely by himself. One day, Trevor found a beagle, and since he wasn’t a dog person, he didn’t know what to do with her. So he took her to an animal shelter only to learn that they would put her down if she weren’t adopted in a month. He drove away but halfway home turned around to retrieve her. He couldn’t leave her to die and he couldn’t keep her. So Trevor put an ad online: “Free beagle, kindness the only requirement.” Half a dozen people called, and Trevor had them over for coffee to meet and greet the little dog. He finally gave her to Sally, a nurse with two young kids, because she had the sweetest smile when she petted the dog.

After finding the beagle a home, Trevor realized that he hadn’t felt awkward while meeting these people. In fact, being involved with others in an act of kindness relieved him of his loneliness. What a simple and profound example of the photosynthesis of grace.

There’s a rhythm to grace as we move through the years. In the first half of life, we’re called to take things in. In the second half of life, we’re called to empty out. Over time, we’re shaped like an inlet, receiving and letting go as the tide of life softens us. Being emptied of everything but our care doesn’t create certainty, but it lets us feel at peace with all that remains unknown.

Mark Nepo moved and inspired readers with his No. 1 New York Times best-seller The Book of Awakening. Excerpted from The One Life We’re Given: Finding the Wisdom That Waits in Your Heart, published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster © 2016. •

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