Checking Out Grace
Dinner-table conversations taste bitter and sweet in these days of social distancing.
Since my little family of three burrowed together last week, our table talk represents a real back-and-forth. Inevitably, one of us mentions a reason for gratitude; almost instinctively, someone chases that thought, invoking something we all miss about “normal” life.
A few nights ago, conversation revolved around our local library—closed indefinitely in an atypical act of service to its patrons. Our words willed its doors open soon.
Then, almost as an aside, I expressed thanks for how the closing was handled. Among other measures, the library extended due dates on physical items by more than a month. No rush, then, in clearing our book piles. A perfect type of love drives out the fear of overdue items.
A little light took over my wife’s eyes as thought out loud. She reflected on ways the library exists as a true community center, radiating goodness out to the rest of the community. The Columbia Public Library levies no fees, and offers gentle email nudges about books which are well past due. These simple things reveal a love of second chances, room to fail and come back again.
“It really is like grace,” she exclaimed, the thought crystallizing for the first time.
Her words sounded a starting gun, my mind off and running after all the ways libraries reproduce grace upon grace. Columbia Public Library sits equidistant from my home and work; under normal circumstances, I walk through its doors at least two or three times a week. Those trips never feel ordinary, but rather like a series of steps toward the sacraments.
I search the spines of new poetry releases as if I’m reading lines of holy writ. Looking around, I notice a ragtag assembly. Students mix with professionals. People who speak English as a second language share space with those who treat it like an obsession. The down-and-out, the disheveled, the got-it-all-together, the seekers, the too-smart-for-their-own-good, the sure-footed—all are welcome whenever the library doors open.
In the library, children are occasionally hushed or asked to use “walking feet.” Yet here—perhaps only here—they exist as equal stakeholders, as important to the mission and movement of the place as grown-ups.
Questions are encouraged and dogma-free answers offered. Mystery and wonder still sit upon a pedestal; facts still matter.
Within these walls, I’ve puzzled over my own words, breaking through the blank space on a page. In the stacks, I discovered the poetry of Franz Wright and Mary Oliver, now like friends and psalmists to me. I first set my eyes on the work of James Baldwin, whose prose sears my conscience. Here I dared myself to start and finish massive volumes by Octavio Paz and Rita Dove; here I met Joy Harjo and Chigozie Obioma, Walker Percy and George Saunders.
I take almost-nightly runs through my neighborhood. After hours, the library most resembles a church with books. The light within burns like a beacon. Clear, unstained glass windows signify a cathedral for those of us who find writers nearly as iconic as the saints and martyrs.
Churches and libraries, at their best, should be a place for every kind of person to check out grace, then come back asking for more. All requests are met with a soft “of course.”
Shaken out of my own musing and finishing the conversation with my family, a question lingers. How do we replace the grace found in libraries until they open again? Can the same grace abound when caution does?
The more I turn over the question, the more wrongheaded it seems. If libraries lend common grace—and if common grace always tastes and feels and smells like the real thing—then we simply pursue the same rhythms of giving and receiving we practice in church.
On normal Sundays, we gather to scatter. The benediction sounds and we leave with bread on our tongues and wine on our lips, as an old Aaron Tate song goes. We “leave a trail of crumbs to lead the hungry back to the place that [we] are from.”
We do not step across the sanctuary threshold to fill our heads with cold, hard knowledge; the words of the prophets, apostles and Christ himself invade our hearts and send electric grace coursing throughout our bodies.
And so it is with the library. As we sit in our homes and work through our stacks of books, the truths we absorb aren't meant to begin and end with us. Empathy for fictional characters expands our hearts. Poetry connects us to the atoms animating forces as big as our universe and as small as our souls. Great works of journalism fix images of real people, places and things in our minds.
Rather than hoard the experience, we gather these stories around us, then scatter them. At safe distances from our neighbors, through video chats and livestreams, in the money we spend on local goods and services, we return the grace first loaned to us.
We cannot replace what libraries do; we take what they give us and share it with others. That’s what grace does—never adding or subtracting, always multiplying.
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