A prior post recorded my delight in the novel “Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger despite my criticism for his use of an Aeschylus quotation about suffering and wisdom. Not surprisingly the book has received many awards.
On May 1, 2014, the Mystery Writers of America granted its 2014 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel to “Ordinary Grace.”
Earlier the novel had won (a) the 2014 Midwest Booksellers Choice Award for Best Novel of the year; (b) the 2014 Dilys Award from the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association for the mystery book their members most enjoyed selling; and (c) the Squid Award from Left Cost Crime , a group of mystery fans for the best mystery set in the U.S. The novel also has been included on many Best of 2013 lists.
The 53-year old Frank Drum in the novel, “Ordinary Grace,” begins his narration by saying that in 1961, when he was 13 years old, the deaths of his sister and four others in his small southern Minnesota town were not completely tragic. These deaths also brought him wisdom by “the awful grace” of God in accordance with a quotation from Aeschylus, a Greek playwright, that suffering and pain, “against our will, [bring us] . . . wisdom through the awful grace of God.” 
The reader thus immediately is faced with two terms: “ordinary grace” and “awful grace.” Do they mean the same? Or are they different concepts? And are they different from “divine grace”? The novel does not answer these questions.
Towards the end of the novel after many horrible deaths, Frank’s father, Rev. Nathan Drum, a Methodist minister, repeats the Aeschylus quotation. Frank responds with this pithy, skeptical question, “Awful?” Rev. Drum merely responds, “I don’t think it is meant in a bad way. I think it means beyond our understanding.” (P. 289.) That was the only other reference to “awful grace” I found in the novel.
Similarly the only time I found the term “ordinary grace” used was in Frank Drum’s description of a lunch at the church pastored by his father. The lunch was just after the funeral service for Ariel Drum, the pastor’s daughter and Frank’s sister. Rev. Drum was quietly composing himself for what everyone expected to be a thoughtful, lengthy prayer of grace before the meal was served. Ruth Drum, the pastor’s wife and the mother of Ariel and Frank, rudely interrupted the solemn silence. “For God’s sake, Nathan, can’t you, just this once, offer an ordinary grace?” (P. 269.) (Emphasis added.)
Everyone at the lunch was stunned into a nervous silence. Jake Drum, Frank’s younger and stuttering brother, broke the quiet and surprised his embarrassed parents and the others with these three words: “I’ll say grace.” Then Jake, after a brief stutter, prayed, “Heavenly Father, for the blessings of this food and these friends and our families, we thank you. In Jesus’ name, amen.” (P. 270.) (Emphasis added.)
Frank, who was startled and frightened by Jake’s announcing he would say the grace, afterwards looked at his brother “with near reverence and thought to myself, ‘Thank you, God.’” Frank also commented that this grace was “so ordinary there was no reason at all to remember it. Yet I have never across the forty years since it was spoken forgotten a single word.” (P. 270.) (Emphasis added.)
Therefore, a simple answer to the question about the meaning of “ordinary grace” is it was the simple prayer offered before lunch by an ordinary person, a young boy without any theological education.
But this is too simple an answer, in my opinion.
Immediately after saying this prayer, Jake’s stutter disappeared, and he told his brother that he thought he never would stutter again. Jake added that this change was a miracle that happened without his seeing a light or hearing a voice. Instead, Jake said he “wasn’t afraid anymore” and if “we put everything in God’s hands, maybe we don’t any of us have to be afraid anymore.” (Pp. 281-82.) Their mother concurred, saying, “it was a miracle by the grace of God.” (P. 292.) (Emphasis added.)
In other words, although the prayer itself may have been an “ordinary grace,” Jake’s being able to say it and its impact on his stuttering were examples of God’s grace or divine grace.
Another example of divine grace entering the lives of the people of this small town in 1961 through the words of an ordinary person was the sermon by Rev. Drum on the Sunday after Ariel’s death.
Rev. Drum said that the events of the past week had caused him to think about “the darkest moment in the Bible [when] Jesus in his agony on the cross cries out, ‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’” In “that moment of his bitter railing [Jesus] . . . must have felt betrayed and completely abandoned by his father, a father he’d always believed loved him deeply and absolutely. How terrible that must have been and how alone he must have felt. . . . Jesus . . . saw with mortal eyes, felt the pain of mortal flesh, and knew the confusion of imperfect mortal understanding.” (Emphasis added.)
Rev. Drum continued with a personal confession. “I see with mortal eyes. Mymortal heart this morning is breaking. And I do not understand. I confess that I have cried out to God, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’” (Emphasis added.)
“When we feel abandoned, alone, and lost,” Rev. Drum added, “what’s left to us? What do I have, what do you have, . . . except to rail against God and to blame him for the dark night into which he’s led us, to blame him for our misery, to blame him and cry out against him for not caring? What’s left to us when that which we love most has been taken?”
“I will tell you what’s left, three profound blessings. In his first letter to the Corinthians [I Corinthians 13:13], Saint Paul tells us exactly what they are: faith, hope, and love. These gifts, which are the foundation of eternity, God has given to us and he’s given us complete control over them. Even in the darkest night, it’s still within our power to hold to faith. We can still embrace hope. And although we may ourselves feel unloved we can still stand steadfast in our love for others and for God. All this is in our control. God gave us these gifts and he does not take them back. It is we who choose to discard them.” (Emphasis added.)
“And in your dark night, I urge you to hold to your faith, to embrace hope, and to bear your love before you like a burning candle, for I promise that it will light your way.”
“And whether you believe in miracles or not, I can guarantee that you will experience one. . . . The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.”
“I invite you, my brothers and sisters, to rejoice with me in the divine grace of the Lord and in the beauty of this morning, which he has given us.” (Pp. 194-95.) (Emphasis added.)
Frank commented that he “left the church that morning feeling, as I do to this day [40 years later], that I had experienced a miracle, the one promised by my father who had spoken a truth profound and simple.” (Emphasis added.)
For me, these examples and the rest of the novel suggest that there is no difference between ordinary grace and divine grace, which for Christians refers to acts of favor or gifts from God toward humans that we have not earned or do not deserve. Indeed, Saint Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians says, “we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” (II Corinthians 5: 20.) This theological issue is left to the reader to ponder.
The novel reminds us that death comes into everyone’s life, often at unanticipated moments. In other words, death exists in the midst of life. The key issue for those affected by death of family members and friends is how do we respond. Funeral or memorial services always remind me that my days are numbered and that I do not know when my death will arrive. Therefore, I should live each day as if it were my last and be present in the moment. Despite this obvious conclusion, I too often do not live that way.
The novel also reminds us that children, here the 13-year old Frank and his younger brother Jake, can be strong and insightful even when faced with stressful events like the death of family members and friends. Indeed, the two boys seem stronger in some ways than their parents, at least in Frank’s account.
Of course, we are hearing the account of this year from only one participant, 40 years after the fact. We undoubtedly would have other perspectives if there were reports from at least the other members of Frank’s family.
Near the end of the novel Frank, now a high school history teacher, acknowledges these limitations of his account of that summer when he says that “when you look back at a life, yours or another’s, what you see is a path that weaves into and out of deep shadow. So much is lost. What we use to construct the past is what has remained in the open, a hodgepodge of fleeting glimpses . . . . [W]hat I recall of that . . . summer . . . is a construct of what stands in the light and what I imagine in the dark where I cannot see.” (P. 302.)
Indeed, Frank says, “there is no such thing as a true event. We know dates and times and locations and participants but accounts of what happened depend upon the perspective from which the event is viewed. . . . I’m aware that Jake and my father recall things I don’t and what we remember together we often remember differently. I’m sure that each of us has memories that for reasons our own we don’t share. Some things we prefer remain lost in the shadows of our past.”
“Ordinary Grace” offers an extraordinary exploration of grace and wisdom. The five deaths in one summer in a small town also allow the novelist’s mystery-writing skills to peak through. Reading the novel has many rewards.
 A prior post expressed my objection to the use of this quotation in this novel.
The chorus in Agamemnon, a famous play by the Greek playwright Aeschylus (circa 525/524 BC—circa 456-455 BC) makes the following statement (in English translation):
“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
I encountered this statement in the excellent, fascinating contemporary novel Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, about which I will comment in future posts. The statement supposedly was a favorite saying of the novel’s Rev. Nathan Drum, a Methodist minister in southern Minnesota in the 1960’s. The author Krueger has said that he has liked this quotation and always wanted to use it in one of his novels, and so he did by putting it into the mouth of Rev. Drum.
For me, the use of this quotation by Rev. Drum does not ring true to his character. I could not accept that a Methodist minister wanting to impart wisdom to his two sons in the U.S. in the 1960’s would use the words of a pre-Christian playwright, rather than words of Scripture.
When I posed this problem to Mr. Krueger, he said that as the novel explains, Rev. Drum originally was going to be a lawyer and, as the novel did not explicate, he had had a broad pre-law education, which exposed him to Aeschylus. This response does not satisfy me, a retired lawyer who had a broad pre-law education.
I also am troubled by the English translation’s reference to the “awful” grace of God. For me, the word “awful” is strongly negative with “horrible” as a synonym. When Krueger was responding to my question, he referred to an alternate meaning of “awful” as “full of awe.” In the novel towards its end after many horrible deaths, however, Rev. Drum repeats the quotation to his older son Frank, who asks skeptically, “Awful?” Rev. Drum merely responds, “I don’t think it is meant in a bad way. I think it means beyond our understanding.” (P. 289.) Again this response does not satisfy me as one coming from an individual supposedly knowledgeable about Aeschylus.
In my investigations of this quandary I discovered that the quotation was used in 1968 by U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy on the night of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking to a crowd in Indianapolis, Indiana, Kennedy referred to his own grief at the 1963 murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Robert then said, “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”
Kennedy went on to say that night in Indianapolis, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black… Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” (The quotation from Aeschylus was later inscribed on a memorial at the gravesite of Robert Kennedy following his own assassination.)
I certainly recalledthat Robert Kennedy made an emotionaland moving extemporaneous statement on the night of Rev. King’s assassination, but I did not remember the specifics. Learning the specifics helps me understand why novelist Krueger wanted to use the Aeschylus quotation in a novel, but, in my view, does not justify putting those words into Rev. Drum’s mouth seven years before the King assassination.
Moreover, the English translation is poetical and sounds profound, but is misleading on a simple analysis, in my judgment. First, is suffering a necessary condition for obtaining wisdom or without suffering is wisdom impossible? “No” is the obvious answer for me. Second, is suffering a sufficient condition for wisdom or is wisdom always a consequence of suffering? Again, “No” is the obvious answer to this question.
In my opinion, suffering sometimes (but not always) provides an opportunity to gain wisdom that sometimes (but not always) produces wisdom. That opens for me the broader and more important question of how does one learn from suffering or pain in one’s life.
My cursory research about Aeschylus reveals that he “was a deep, religious thinker. Few poets have ever presented evil in such stark and tragic terms, yet he had an exalted view of Zeus, whom he celebrated with a grand simplicity reminiscent of the Psalms, and a faith in progress or the healing power of time.” (Emphasis added.)
This source recognizes what I believe to be the polytheistic belief system of the ancient Greeks and casts doubt, in my opinion, on any attempt in our time to use this Aeschylus quotation to elucidate the Christian perspective of a Methodist pastor or anyone else.
Agamemnon is the first play in the trilogy The Oresteia, telling the bloody story of the family of Agamemnon, King of Argos. It begins with the triumphant return to Mycenae of King Agamemnon from his victory in the Trojan War, as told by the town’s people (the chorus) and his wife, Clytemnestra. She was angry with the King because of his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia to assuage the Gods to stop a storm hindering the Greek fleet in the war and also because of his keeping a Trojan prophetess Cassandra as his mistress. Cassandra foretells of the murder of Agamemnon, and of herself, to the assembled townsfolk, who are horrified. The play ends with a prediction of the return of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, who will seek to avenge his father.
I earnestly seek responses from those who know the ancient Greek language and who can shed light on the previous English translation of the Aeschylus quotation by Edith Hamilton. I also welcome comments from those who are knowledgeable about Aeschylus more generally and about Agamemnon specifically.
Provide new insights. Correct my errors.
Mycenae is now an archeological site in Greece, located about 56 miles southwest of Athens in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese. Argos is 7 miles to the south; Corinth, 30 miles to the north. From the hill on which the palace was located, one can see the Saronic Gulf. In the second millennium B.C., Mycenae was one of the major centers of Greek civilization, a military stronghold that dominated much of southern Greece. A number of years ago I visited the impressive site.
 Here are two other English translations that I have found. First, Ian Johnston in 2002: “Zeus, who guided mortals to be wise, has established his fixed law– wisdom comes through suffering. Trouble, with its memories of pain, drips in our hearts as we try to sleep, so men against their will learn to practice moderation. Favours come to us from gods seated on their solemn thrones—such grace is harsh and violent.” Second, Anne Carson in 2009: “Yet there drips in sleep before my heart a grief remembering pain. Good sense comes the hard way. And the grace of the gods (I’m pretty sure) is a grace that comes by violence.”