This is another old Livejournal post I’ve dredged up because I want to have my essays here.
In Christianity, the concept of grace refers to an unearned gift or blessing from God. The term is most often used in connection to salvation. While various denominations disagree on the details, the general idea is that salvation is a gift which cannot be earned; nothing that we do on earth can be good enough to earn ourselves a place in heaven. There just aren’t any good works good enough to “deserve” salvation. We start our lives in a state of sin (original sin and all that), and if we’re keeping score, nothing can get past that initial deficit.
So, then, if anyone is Saved, it is because God has decided to extend that gift even though the recipient doesn’t deserve it. By the Grace of God, a sign of god’s Love for mankind. Various denominations have differing theories on how one can screw up salvation and reject God’s Grace.
In Catholicism, one needs to go through the Church as an intermediary to receive forgiveness for one’s sins. In Calvinism, salvation is predetermined – God has picked out who is saved and who isn’t, and no amount of hard work is going to change that. If God hasn’t picked you as one of the Chosen, it’s hellfire for you. (Which then leads to antinomianism, my favourite protestant heresy, but that’s another post for another day).1
I don’t believe in Salvation, and I don’t believe in god in the sense most people use the term. Hence, my personal use of the word grace has a different spin on it. For me, grace is still connected with love, and with my own unconventional view of the divine 2. As I’ve discussed on before (in more angst-ridden posts), I feel that love is something that one cannot “deserve”, something than cannot be earned. Nothing that one does can be good enough to compel the love of another. When I match gazes with someone and see that light flash in their eyes, all the good and evil I have done in my life are like a candle against the sunrise. It’s something one can screw up, but nothing one does can make it happen.
It’s not just “Love”, though that’s part of it. The concept is tied up with elements of “love”, “ecstasy”, “joy” and to a certain extent “forgiveness”, particularly in the sense of freedom from the guilt and shame associated with things long past. Which is to say that “grace” includes, for me, letting go of one’s attachment to past traumas and allowing one’s self to fully experience the wonder of the moment.
I have a couple personal symbols that are tied up in the concept of Grace, in the idea of Love and Joy and Ecstasy as unearned gifts. The celebration of that Grace, in the myriad ecstatic experiences of life, is both a transcendent connection with the divine and an intensely human act. It’s a sense of joining with something bigger than myself 3. I feel that Grace is something I should be thankful for, and something that should be actively celebrated and shared.
When I’m in a good mood, anyway.
The Sisters of Mercy
Leonard Cohen’s song “The Sisters of Mercy” (lyrics here) is one of my favourite Cohen songs4. It’s often described as a song about prostitutes, but I’ve never been able to figure out why. Some internet research tells me that it was used as a theme for prostitutes in a movie (“McCabe and Mrs. Miller”), but as far as I can tell, nothing in the song alludes to prostitution. Wikipedia makes a terse claim that the song refers to a night Cohen spent with two women in Edmonton.
What the song describes, to me, is an experience of grace. In a time of darkness, the protagonist spends an evening of comfort and joy. The “sisters” give him a gift of “love that is graceful and green as a stem”.
The metaphoric mixing between sex, love and religion is a common theme in Cohen’s work. It’s used heavily in this song, and perhaps that’s part of why I like it so much.
When I was a confused, bitter teenager who didn’t know how to connect with people at all, I had two friends, women, from whom I learned a little bit more about how to be human. We weren’t lovers at all, but one of them introduced me to Cohen’s music, including the Sisters of Mercy. In a sense, I feel that time in my life was the beginning of the process of self-transformation that brought me where I am now.
The last verse has a tendency to echo in my head;
When I left they were sleeping, I hope you run into them soon.
Don’t turn on the lights, you can read their address by the moon.
And you won’t make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night:
We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right,
We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right.
The people I love are fantastic creatures who bring grace and wonder into my life, and make my world a better place. If they do the same for someone else, that doesn’t take away from the gifts they’ve given me, so I think it’s great if they can do the same for someone else.
There’s something there, too, about the nature of grace – the gift the protagonist receives from the women is something specific in time. His happiness, perspective or tranquility isn’t dependent on them, and so he doesn’t rely on continued actions from them to make him happy. Hence his willingness to share.
That’s the way I’ve always read the song, in any case. Both a staunch defender of the patriarchy and a 2nd wave feminist might make a case that the protagonist is using the “sisters”, taking what he wants from them and then abandoning them, giving nothing in return. The idea of women as a source of grace is certainly laden with a lot of cultural essentialist baggage, and that’s something I occasionally wonder about.
I wonder what it might sound like to hear a song written from the other point of view, the two women?
1I’m not a religious scholar, so it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong here. If I am, I’d actually like to know what I got wrong.
2 Some day I might try to explain this in writing, but today is not that day. In brief, “thou art god” and “all things are true, even false things” are starting points.
3 And also something contained entirely within myself. It’s not religion if it’s not self-contradictory.
4 My favourite would be Famous Blue Raincoat.