by David Sisler

One of my great pleasures in life is listening to detective novels. I know most people read them, but since I discovered audio-books, my minutes in the car are filled with the cases of Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov, Carlotta Carlyle, Bernie Rhodenbarr, and most recently, Brother Cadfael.

Brother Cadfael, created by Ellis Peters, is a medieval monk "with a green thumb and a penchant for weeding out the truth." For years, Cadfael was an adventurer. He fought in the Crusades and finally opted for the life of a monk in Shrewsbury monastery. There he serves Prior Robert and the Brothers as gardener, physician and sleuth.

The series begins with A Morbid Taste for Bones in which the good Prior decides the Abby would be better served if they had the relics of a saint enshrined on the monastery's altar. A search leads them to a small village in Wales and to St. Winifred. At the end of the story, with St. Winifred's reliquary safely in Shrewsbury, Bernard, one of the villagers, attends Mass at the monastery.

Bernard listens to the stories of miracles associated with the reliquary, and interrupts with tales of even greater miracles which have taken place at the saint's grave, from whence her bones were removed. "More people come there for help than ever before," he says. "There are marvelous cures."

Prior Robert, who led the pilgrimage to bring St. Winifred, and the glory associated with her, to Shrewsbury, but who sought personal glory even more, stiffened with jealousy "and incredulous resentment" at the report and counters haughtily, "Ah, they are small things. The residue of grace."

Bernard replies, continuing to catalog astounding reports of miracles, healings, deliverances and even the raising of the dead, "No, Father Prior. Great things."

The Abbott, oblivious of the Prior's chagrin says, "Universal grace, whether it manifests itself in Wales or the Holy Land or wheresoever is to be hailed with universal gratitude."

C.S. Lewis was once asked what makes Christianity different from all other religions in the world. He replied, "Oh, that's easy. It is grace."

Ellis Peter's fictional Abbott spoke of "universal grace." John Newton, sea captain, slave trader, and eventually, pastor, wrote about "Amazing Grace."

The versions vary, but it seems clear that an incident on the high seas changed Newton's wretched life. Some say Newton's ship sank in a fierce storm. Others say it nearly sank. Before that, Captain Newton hauled human cargo, slaves from Africa, chained below the decks to prevent suicides, fettered side by side like cord wood, to save space. And if a slave became ill during the voyage, he was tossed overboard to prevent the infection from spreading.

Maybe it was the sound of human suffering, maybe it was the sound of a driving Atlantic storm, maybe it was the sound of his own terror-filled heart, but Newton heard another sound. "Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see."

Sadly, some of us are scandalized by testifying that we are wretches. We've looked it up in Webster's and we know that "wretch" comes from an old English word which means "outcast, an exile, one who is driven out." The modern definition is "a base, despicable, or vile person." And because of the push to be politically correct, some church people now sing, "How sweet the sound that saved someone like me."

We have swallowed the lie that, "I'm okay, you're okay." We no longer regret the selfish, horrible things we have done. We can no longer tell the truth, not even to God Almighty, and especially not to ourselves. Because we never acknowledge our wretchedness, the grace we claim is a thin, watered down thing, barely recognizable as that gift of God which nailed His Son to a cross.

Kathleen Norris writes, "People want grace, it seems, and will admit to being ‘lost' and ‘blind' in John Newton's fine old hymn. But don't ask them to admit that it might take knowing oneself as a wretch to truly know grace for the wonder that it is... It seems to me that if you can't even admit to being a wretch, you haven't been paying attention."

Amazing, bewildering, astounding, perplexing grace that fills one with wonder and astonishment, is evidentially not required by the politically correct sinner. It is, however, for the rest of us. And sometimes all that we are able to accept for ourselves is Prior Robert's "residue of grace." For the wretched sinner, it is enough.


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 7/3/99

Copyright 1999 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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