The Gift of Grace
By Paul Brunton. Compiled by Sam Cohen
Publisher: Burdett, NY: Larson Publications, 2111
British theosophist Paul Brunton (1898–1981) travelled to India in 1930, beginning a life-changing journey that brought him in contact with many gurus. His books on mysticism in the 1930s and 1940s became best-sellers, and he is often credited with introducing Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi to the West.
In the 1950s Brunton retired from writing books for publication, but at his death it was found that his journals, filled with notes and essays on spirituality, amounted to 20,000 pages. These journals were published in 1984 in sixteen volumes. It is from these journals that Sam Cohen has selected passages on the subject of grace. In The Gift of Grace Cohen has organized these passages thematically, dividing them into fourteen chapters with titles such as: “Grace and Ego”, “Self-Effort and Grace” and “Grace: Its Mysterious Arising”.
In the first chapter, titled “A Sense of Grace – What It Is and Isn’t”, Brunton observes, “Grace is a cosmic fact. If it were not, then the spiritual outlook for the human race, dependent entirely on its own efforts for the possibility of spiritual progress, would be poor and disheartening.” The reason our situation is not at all hopeless is, he claims, that “grace is always present since the infinite power from which it originally comes is always present”. Brunton puts it quite simply: “The grace of an infinite being is itself infinite”.
One central theme running through the entire book may be summed up in his statement: “It is not the lack of grace that really accounts for our situation but the lack of our cooperation with the ever-existing grace.” One aspect of “cooperating” with grace is simply being open to it. In Chapter Five, titled “Letting Grace In”, Brunton notes, “It is true that grace is given, but we ourselves help to make its blessings possible by the opening of the self to receive it, the silencing of the self to feel it, and the purifying of self to be fit for it”. And, “Grace needs a prepared mind to receive it, a self-controlled life to accept it, an aspiring heart to attract it”.
Letting grace in, he says, requires inner silence and stillness. “Let us stop all this busy business awhile and stand still. Let us listen for a while for then we may hear the word which God is forever speaking to us.” Brunton says that the impulse to turn the attention inward comes to us all from time to time, but we ignore or brush it aside.
It is important that the feeling of “inward drawing” which comes to you at times be at once followed up whenever possible, by a withdrawal from external affairs for a few minutes and a concentration on what the feeling leads to. This practice is like a thread which if followed up will lead to a cord, a rope, and so on. Thus you will benefit by the grace which is being shed upon you, and not turn away unheedingly.
Another aspect of “cooperating” with grace lies in accepting the situations and events in our lives as what they are: gifts of grace. Brunton advises: “If you cannot compel or command grace, you can at least ask, work, and prepare for it. For if you are not prepared properly by understanding, you may not be willing to submit when it does come, if the form it takes is not to your liking.” In Chapter Six, titled “Grace Brings What We Need”, he speaks of developing the wisdom and understanding to receive grace. As he puts it, “The divine grace brings you not what you ask but what you need. The two are sometimes the same but sometimes not. It is only with the wise that they always coincide; with others they may stand in sharp conflict.” In fact, he claims, that with wisdom we will come to see that the very situations we found most abhorrent were gifts of grace:
If you could penetrate into the so-called unconscious levels of your mind, you might find to your utter amazement that your enemies, critics, or domestic thorns-in-the-flesh are the very answer to your prayer for grace; they become so, however, only when you recognize them as such, when you perceive what duty or what self-discipline they give you the chance to practise.
In Chapter Eight, titled “Grace and Ego”, Brunton discusses the single biggest barrier to grace. He writes, “The real bar to the entry of grace is simply the preoccupation of your thoughts with yourself. For then the Overself must leave you to your cares.” Brunton calls the divine the “Overself”, or sometimes the “higher self,” to indicate its fundamental oneness with our own true self, as distinguished from our ego. Brunton writes:
The internal work of grace is only possible if the aspirant assents to the direction it is taking and supports the transformation it is effecting. If it is severing you from an attachment which you are unwilling to abandon and if you withhold your consent, the grace itself may be forced to withdraw. The same may happen if you cling to a desire from which it seeks to free you.
He explains that the aspirant must play an active role in accepting – or surrendering to – grace:
Grace is not a one-way operation. It is not, as a few erroneously believe, getting something free. There is nothing free anywhere. For when the grace starts to operate it will also start to dispel those negative qualities which obstruct it. They will resist, but if you adopt the correct attitude of self-surrender and are willing to let them go, they will not be able to resist for long. But if you hold on to them because they seem a part of yourself, or because they seem “natural”, then either grace will withdraw or it will lead you into circumstances and situations that remove the obstructions forcibly and consequently painfully.
Brunton points out that spiritual seekers often go through phases in their development when they feel that grace has left them. They may suffer doubts or feel forsaken. However, this may all be part of the mysterious ways in which grace will ultimately crush the ego. Brunton writes, “When the ego is brought to its knees in the dust, humiliated in its own eyes, however esteemed or feared, envied or respected in other people’s eyes, the way is opened for grace’s influx. Be sure that this humbling of the inner man will happen again and again until you are purified of all pride.” Therefore, he offers this reassurance:
The very power whose presence you may think has denied you – grace – is taking care of you even when you are not conscious of this fact. The more anguish, at such a time, the more the higher self is squeezing the ego. The more you seem to be alone and forsaken, the closer the higher self may be drawing you to itself.
In Chapter Nine, titled “Self-Effort and Grace”, Brunton observes, “The passing over into higher consciousness cannot be attained by the will of any man, yet it cannot be attained without the will of man. Both grace and effort are needed.” Therefore, he counsels, “If you think that the result depends wholly upon your personal endeavours after holiness, you are wrong. But if you do little or nothing to control yourself because you wait for the grace of God or the help of a master to come into your life, you are also wrong.”
He notes that the struggle to control the mind can be long and hard. “Many have failed to dis-identify themselves from their thoughts, despite all attempts. This shows its difficulty, not its impossibility.” While agreeing that for those who struggle and strive to still the mind, in the end it is grace alone that “will liberate them from their thought-chains”, he likens the seeker’s seemingly useless struggle to hoisting the sails of a ship:
It is not by special intervention that the divine grace appears in your life. For it was there all the time, and behind all your struggles, as a constant unbroken radiation from the Overself. But those struggles were like the hoisting of sails on a ship. Once up, they are able to catch the wind and propulsion begins automatically.
One is never alone in this struggle. “When grace has led you sufficiently far, you will be distinctly aware of an inner presence. It will think for you, feel for you, and even act for you. This is the beginning of, and what it means to have, an egoless life.”
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.