He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair. against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. — Aeschylus.
A few weeks ago, I came across the phrase, “the awful grace of God,” in a novel I was reading — Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. ( A book I highly recommend by the way.) The phrase bothered me at the time but I stored it away. Then last night as I was reading Tori McClure”s A Pearl in the Storm there it was again. This couldn’t be a coincidence I thought. Besides, this time I was provided the original quote from Aeschylus.
Mr. Krueger must have been bothered by what Aeschylus meant because in the novel, Rev. Drum repeats the quotation to his older son Frank, who asks skeptically, “Awful?” Rev. Drum merely responds, “I don’t think it is meant in a bad way. I think it means beyond our understanding.”
I don’t like to think that the word “awful” and the words, “grace” and “God” have a place together. We know that Aeschylus didn’t mean the words in reference to a universal God or Jesus. He was a Greek who preceded Jesus by at least five hundred years.
Interestingly in my research I discovered that the quotation was used in 1968 by U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy on the night of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. RFK referred to his own grief at the 1963 murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy and then said, “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’” The quotation was later inscribed on a memorial at the gravesite of Robert Kennedy.
So the question is what does the phrase, “the awful grace of God.” mean? I’m fairly certain that it doesn’t mean that wisdom only comes from suffering or that God’s grace only comes to those in pain. At least I hope not. But perhaps it means that given the right attitude, pain and suffering also offer the opportunity for wisdom and grace. That has certainly been true in my life. I welcome your thoughts on what “awful grace” means.
Perhaps the better inquiry we should have about the words that have haunted me since reading Krueger’s book is how do we learn and gain wisdom during those difficult moments in our life, because we all have them and will again? I believe the answer lies in the words “through God’s grace.” And if we do learn then maybe we can go about following the advice RFK gave later in his speech that night — “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”