Word Games: Grace


Sometimes a word has so many meanings, all glancing off each other, that you can’t get to grips with the thing at all. I don’t know what “grace” means and I’m not sure I ever will. Somehow this seems to be the point, that it’s a word resistant to enclosure. (I don’t think I’m alone: even the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives it 17 different definitions.)

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a book on the subject – Grace and Necessity – and recently, in a talk for the Royal Society of Literature, he touched on it again. In that low, hypnotic rumble of a voice, he talked about faith and poetry. (He’s a poet, translates from the Russian and Welsh, writes about Dostoevsky, can work in 11 languages including ancient Greek and biblical Hebrew: you know, the usual.) Williams wondered at how human language and poetry are able “to say more than is there”. There are no absolutes, no answers. Every word is open, mercurial. At the end of the talk, in a rousing rush, Williams tried to articulate his intention in writing: “How do I get inside the life of language and take it forward?” he asked. “If the point is truth or grace, then how to arrive at something that is translucent to that?”

So grace is truth. But is it? The closest I can get to it, before it slips away again, is to think of it as acceptance but that seems too vague. Grace has a religious home (it’s from the Old French, meaning “God’s favour”) but it reaches much further than faith. The French word is variously translated as “pardon, divine grace, mercy; favour, thanks; elegance, virtue”. You say grace before a meal; someone is graceful as they walk or dance; it can feel like fortune when grace is bestowed or rudeness when it’s not. But none of these usages holds it down: the word still wriggles free.

Williams seems closer to it than most, or like a human embodiment of the word. You could list his qualities: humility, humour, soul, deep intellect, kindness – but they wouldn’t capture the man. We don’t realise how lucky we are to be alive at the same time as him, I sometimes think. There aren’t many heart-mind combinations around in his league, let alone in public life. It’s fitting, somehow, that his formal title as archbishop is “His Grace”.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr