on grace

thoughts & reflections for february 2021

hello, friends. as we move into february and this second month of 2021, i know that so many of us are feeling the strain. we have been living under tremendous amounts of pressure and stress, attempting to stay productive and safe, to keep our heads above water in spite of endless storms and struggles. it’s so much, too much; and if you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, exhausted, furious, discouraged, or literally anything else, i want to tell you that it’s okay to feel like that. this is an impossible time, and we are dealing with impossible things, under impossible circumstances.

i’ve written before on rest, on hope, on forgiveness. and for today’s newsletter i tried, over and over, to write a piece on love in the tarot, on the ways that we find and experience connections, on the importance of magic and intimacy in both romance and platonic love. but sometimes the words just don’t feel right, and we have to put something away and start over with a new framework, a new lens, a new perspective. instead, this month’s reflection essay is on a topic that feels particularly charged for my exvangelical self: the concept of grace.

give yourself a moment to release the tension in your body - i know it’s there. take a few deep breaths, in through your mouth and out through your nose. focus on the sensation of air filling your lungs, rushing over your tongue, gently impacting the space around you. relax your shoulders, unclench your jaw, and let’s get started.

grace & god

i have to start here. for me, any understanding of grace is first tied to the church, to religion, to god. if you’ve read my more personal writing on non-tarot topics, you know that i was raised in a deeply conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist christian household. and while my church was all about fire-and-brimstone sermons, bringing every discussion back to sin and the cross and the wickedness of humanity, there was also a very specific definition of grace that we used, and in fact, that we clung to.

in the calvinist tradition that i followed, god’s grace is the idea of being shown favor, and is directly tied to action in addition to emotion. grace is what has given us life, but it’s also what gives us the opportunity for eternal life, something we are granted only by professing belief in personal sin and unworthiness, which is forgiven through the sacrifice of christ.

this concept of grace is intertwined with god’s love and mercy, a demonstration of the ways that we are chosen and cared for. it’s usually framed in opposition to the judgement of god, the requirements for justice and punishment that god the father is so well-known for. these acts of grace are what pave the way for salvation, what protect us from an eternity of separation from god. grace grants us something bigger, something better, than what we deserve - and when you’re told that what you deserve is hellfire and eternal damnation, that grace sounds pretty fucking good.

while the tarot doesn’t often speak openly about gods and deities (at least not from my perspective), the hierophant is traditionally seen as a religious leader or teacher, someone with spiritual knowledge and a reverence for history. yet if we hold onto the classic interpretation of this card, there can be an air of separateness, of judgement - someone setting rules, creating structures, upholding boundaries, in the same way that we see the emperor. if you’re familiar with the belief that the pope acts as the infallible voice of god, you can see how this idea could easily manifest within the hierophant, and how powerful those edicts and traditions become when they’re tied to the will of a higher power.

the grace that i learned about in my childhood church may not be one that we’re meant to be able to earn. yet when we only view the hierophant through this particular lens, when we give traditions this level of power, they don’t give us space to grow or thrive. they encourage us to keep ourselves boxed in, rather than create opportunities for new beliefs and rituals. they push us to conform, rather than to evolve.

grace & other people

there’s a second way that grace can be framed, one that may be more familiar to the majority of us. in today’s political climate, the idea of grace is used in a very specific way, often presented as a call for civility and forgiveness rather than something that is willingly offered from one person to another. as marginalized people, we are constantly called to show grace to those that would abuse and destroy us, to turn the other cheek, to go high. we’re told to extend this empathy even when it’s never extended the other way, to believe the best of our enemies while they believe the worst of us. this idea of grace is often based on politeness, on a desire for decorum and smoothing things over - and it often ends up feeling like avoidance, or even violence. grace becomes a way to be absolved, a method for circumventing accountability, rather than an opportunity for kindness or growth.

i don’t want to belabor this point, because i don’t think that i need to. but in the tarot, cards like the five of swords, the ten of swords, and the ten of wands come to mind: cards of short-sightedness, an obsession with winning, viewing the self as a victim, taking on a burden that is far too heavy to carry alone. these cards show us what happens when we do not request or receive kindness or understanding or help, when we instead are focused on pain, on conquest, on proving something in spite of the cost.

when we are urged to give grace to others, it can quickly feel like we’re being pressured to forgive before we’re ready, to overlook mistakes or harmful actions, to be the bigger person so that someone else can remain small and stagnant. this kind of grace admonishes us to evolve, so that others can cling to their old views. grace, by definition, is offered willingly - yet when it’s a demand, when it comes from without rather than from within, it quickly becomes something different. it loses its magic.

grace & the self

fortunately, grace as a concept does not have to be tied to god and religion, to the republican party, to people that would use it as a way to control and manipulate those with less power. the word itself simply means goodwill, courtesy, decency, generosity, respect, kindness. it’s the idea of seeing the best possibilities in someone or something, of looking for the good, of holding space for growth and gratitude. and while grace as a demand from someone else can feel stifling, offering it to ourselves can be both more difficult and more profound.

how do we show ourselves grace? what kindness, sweetness, understanding do we offer to ourselves? what does it look like to point our care and concern inwards, and what could that kind of empathy create? how can grace lead to mercy?

for most of us, grace is not a part of our personal framework. it comes far more naturally to be hard on ourselves, to expect perfection, to constantly raise our own internal standards in spite of the circumstances. yet the tarot speaks of this kind of grace most of all, through cards like strength, the star, temperance, the ace of cups, the four of swords, the seven of wands, the nine of pentacles. these cards hold space for pain and grief, for the things that we have endured, for fear and exhaustion and anxiety and anger. they do not force us to gloss over our past, to ignore our trauma, to pretend that everything is fine - instead they ask us what we need in order to heal, encourage us to find balance within and around ourselves, to make space for rest and compassion. they give us room to celebrate what is working, and to adjust what isn’t. they ask us to acknowledge what we have been through, with honesty rather than excuses.

it may just be my upbringing as a Good Christian Girl, or only knowing the realities of late-stage capitalism, or living through multiple once-in-a-lifetime catastrophes - but everyone i know seems to feel constant and escalating pressure to push on, to keep standards impossibly high in spite of everything that is happening in our world. working through pain, working through a coup, working through a pandemic - even without centering the economic realities of our last few years, it’s very hard for us to rest, to show ourselves kindness, to give ourselves space to heal and recover before diving right back into our daily tasks and long-term ambitions.

yet we are not machines, are not designed for endless and ongoing productivity. being human includes making mistakes, and perhaps we need to give ourselves more space to do that instead of feeling like every little error makes us an abject failure. sometimes the best thing that we can do for ourselves is to put away the to-do list, abandon the rules, and give ourselves permission to do something that feels good, that brings comfort, that invites joy. a foundation or structure that once provided something useful and essential may now feel stifling - yet you do have the power, the ability, to rework those standards. you can shift with the world, can adjust your expectations to match what you can reasonably accomplish. what does grace look like for you? why don’t you think you deserve it? how often do you extend it to others, and what would it feel like to offer grace to yourself with the same frequency?

i know this is easier said than done - manifesting is never simple, and grace can feel like it’s only meant for other people. yet healing and rest are not dirty words. making things easier for ourselves does not make us weak. shifting our expectations doesn’t have to mean lowering our standards. you do not have to be good. instead, remember that you are allowed to fuck up. you are allowed to grow, to adjust, to evolve. you are allowed to offer yourself the gift of grace, and to accept it with relief rather than shame. you are allowed to do what is necessary, what keeps you together. you are allowed to survive.

and more than that: you are allowed to seek joy. what could grace create space for? who could you be if you gave yourself the room to play, to recover, to adapt? what would it feel like to show yourself gentle compassion, rather than tough love?

wishing you a peaceful, joyful, comforting february, full of love and kindness, and a blessed imbolc. have a beautiful month, friends.

images from this post feature cards from the modern witch tarot. all photographs by meg jones wall.