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Excerpt: Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World

Our mother fancied herself the mystic in the family. As one friend said, she was a spiritual director before it was cool. Her bedroom and office were filled with prayer beads and poems by Emily Dickinson. She knitted prayer shawls for us girls, hoping we’d wear them and feel her praying for us. There were always candles burning, oils smelling, feathers, trinkets hanging, and sweet gospel music filling the sacred spaces she created wherever she went, her altars. She even became an oblate working with religious sisters in a nearby convent, seeking silent retreat and a life of contemplative prayer. Maybe seeking truth, too; something that had, before then, evaded her.

What did this mean in terms of her faith? Well, she was not an orderly theologian, that’s for sure. She believed that spirits lived in the woods around the lake house, that our life-force energy never died, that angels were around us all the time and the dead sometimes speak to us, that some people had the gift of second sight, like herself. She believed that time itself was a cycle that circled back on itself, and that people had destinies and callings that were divinely planned, hers especially.

But as with all of us, believing her own most cherished beliefs was hard for her, and in the end, I don’t know which of these beliefs managed to hold steady inside her. I do know that she stopped believing in mercy, either human or divine. Maybe she never fully accepted it because she never experienced solid, anchored love as a child. That hardness of her unforgiving soul left her frightened and furious to the end.

More than any place in the world, our mother loved our family cabin, a home she named Anchor Point. She wanted it to be a place where friends and family could experience safe harbor.

What that safe harbor meant was tables full of food, lots of laughter, dancing and singing, arguing politics, big ideas and any silly thing you could think to talk about, always with intensity and passion. Yes, we often all drank too much and, at times, fought too much to measure up to our “anchoring” name, but, in the end, the place itself seemed able to hold tenderly that part of our family, too. Our brokenness.

It also meant before dinner, saying prayers where everyone had to share what they were most thankful for and sing “Amen” with gusto. The singing was joyful, yes, but also, perhaps, it was a collective plea for forgiveness, for the sins and secrets we all carried, especially our mother.

Anchor Point also meant watching eagles perch on the lake house tree, beholding the sunset, brilliant and broad, and a night sky scattered with endless stars. But this part, too, is hard to fathom. Under that sky, for the first time in her life, our mother began to heal. With her hands in the soil, her deepest lifelong wounds began to mend. But just as the healing began, she became a desperate lover to the disease that would kill her. The same stars of Anchor Point were a witness to both.

I end with one more image of Anchor Point. I remember all of us Jones girls, on late summer afternoons, lying in the middle of that vast, vast Fort Gibson Lake, on big blue foam floaters, mindlessly chatting and dozing, the water holding us up, rocking us, the sun warming our skin. As we floated there, each of us would hold on to a ski rope that, strung out across the water’s surface, kept us tethered to the boat, where my dad would sit, in the shade, listening to the mayhem of our chatter and laughter.

On April 2, 2016, at around 9:00 a.m., her hand still clenched, struggling to hold on to that rope, our mother took her last breath and was finally pulled free from that tether to this life.

Buoyed now by the grace of God, she is at rest, dozing, and yes, healed, an eagle circling overhead, waves of love rocking her, gently, amidst the endless blue of sky and water.

As I wrote those last words, for the first time in my life with her I felt the grip of my own anger start to lessen its hold on me and my aspirations for a theological life. I felt mercy. Mercy toward her, toward my family, myself, and mercy toward all the cruel lies and divisions that damage and define our culture. It was a vast, all-encompassing experience of compassion for my mother, my people, all people, all life, and the universe.

It was then I remembered it. Something always there but never really seen.

On a plank of old driftwood nailed to an aging scrub oak tree outside the cabin, she had burned the words anchor point. The whole thing looked awkward, crosslike.

Why this name? So others could find safety there? No, it was what she herself was looking for. An anchor that could hold her existence steady when nothing else inside her was able to provide enough weight. Lacking that, she had desperately tied herself to the impermanent pleasures of status, grudges, beauty, imaginary lists, strange gods, lake houses, and the power of secrets.

Could it be that by naming that sacred place Anchor Point, she at least glimpsed the very thing she never allowed herself to receive?

Perhaps it should have simply said Mercy Point. That truth she sought and thought she’d lost, although it never lost her. The immovable, unearned, and never relinquished love of God.

In the Hebrew Bible, it is written that above the Ark of the Covenant, there is a throne formed by the wide-spread wings of two cherubim who stand facing each other, on each side. A golden shield covers it. According to scripture, upon this throne sits God, Yahweh, the ultimate judge of all that is. God, hidden but present, meets humanity. On the Day of Atonement, it is written that the high priest approaches the throne and sprinkles upon the golden shield blood from a sacrificed animal. In that blood, humanity is brought before God, and all of history’s brokenness and sin is revealed. Then, from the throne of God Almighty, divine mercy is bestowed.

It’s a powerful ritual image, apocalyptic in its magnitude and furious wonder. And like so many of our most sacred rituals, its truth has been twisted over time, its symbolism distorted to fit our desires. But, oddly, American rock music has redeemed the image for me. Nick Cave, and later Johnny Cash in a cover, provided me with a song, “The Mercy Seat,” that I think I listen to more than any other. Whenever I play it, I think of my mother, of America, of Jesus, of all that is merciful and unmerciful, hated and forgiven.

I grieve that my mother never managed to stop playing the punishment game. She carried it with her to the grave. Never knowing the full pleasures of a merciful life and of God’s mercy. As for me, I catch glimpses of that mercy in my gently growing compassion for the woman who raised me, hurt me, and in her own contorted way, tried to love me. I also catch sight of the true mercy seat at Union, in those moments when the most zealous social justice activists realize that without mercy, justice is lifeless. Practicing compassion is a harder task, in fact, than our ostensible quest to right the scales of life. Justice follows mercy’s lead. I exacted justice on my mother with my second eulogy and mercy grew out of it. I went into it thinking I was going to condemn her; I ended up feeling mercy for her and for myself—and, as it tends to happen, for this planet and its people. Mercy, forgiveness, grace—all these theological concepts become habits. The habit of theology, I believe, is what our world most lacks today.

From CALL IT GRACE by Serene Jones, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Serene Jones.

This excerpt was featured in the March 24th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.