Instances of Discovery

Flashes of Grace: 33 Encounters with God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2021.

“I don’t know how to say what the grace of God is. What I can say is what it’s like for me.” 

We all know about grace being amazing—after all, there’s a whole song about it—but Patrick Henry reminds us that that’s not all it is. It’s also intimidating, disorienting, demanding, reassuring, and sometimes even just downright mind-boggling. Describing thirty-three different aspects of grace based on his everyday experiences, Henry tells the story of a grace that is wide-ranging and comprehensive—if not always comprehensible. Rather than trying to capture and tame his encounters with God, he lets the mystery of memory speak for itself, exemplifying his mantra that being a Christian is about being “an explorer, not a colonizer.” 

Flashes of Grace is wise and grounded, earnest and light, faithful and quirky. Henry describes encountering grace in airports, baseball, hazelnuts, and just about anywhere else you can imagine, while engaging with dialogue partners ranging from King Saul and Saint Augustine to Yogi Berra and Captain Picard. For anyone longing to connect (or reconnect) with God, this book provides a surprising journey that broadens perspectives and explores strange new worlds, while loosening stiff spiritual joints so movement can be free and spontaneous.

 “This book stands as a profound look into the mirror of a soul who has been brave enough, wise enough, honest enough to follow the path expected of him up to the beginning of his real self and how he dealt with each idea along the way. Some elements and ideas on this soul’s journey confirmed what he had always known. Some tore him away from his roots and gave him new life. The life that came out of a life so acutely dissected comes from the kind of honesty that will give you, too, a way to look at your own self and all its twists and turns. It will pull you like a mountain climber’s rope up the North Face of your soul. It will stop you in the process of falling. It will show you that every path is eventually the right path.”
— Joan Chittister
from the foreword

“Sadly, it’s unusual to encounter a book on Christian faith that simply conveys the ‘unbearable lightness’ of that faith—not with the dire fixed jollity of the sales rep, but with the wit, realism, and loving wonder that speaks of a lifetime’s delighted discovery, as a woman married for forty years might speak of a partner or a child. Patrick Henry draws on an immense range of learning—as well as offering theological reflections on Star Trek: The Next Generation—to chart for us a territory where we can explore in confidence, expecting at every turn the completely unexpected and completely committed grace of God in Christ.”
— Rowan Williams
104th Archbishop of Canterbury and author of Being Christian
 
“This thoughtful and thought-provoking book, rich in reference to theologians, historians, biblical scholars, philosophers, and social critics—including those critical of religion—is for anyone who wants to understand what a Christian faith can mean in the present day. If you’re a seeker and a doubter with a liberal and ecumenical bent, this book helps you understand that you’re not alone. The author demonstrates that people like you have long been a valuable part of the Christian tradition.”
— Kathleen Norris
author of Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and The Cloister Walk
 
“Patrick Henry is a giant of ecumenical imagination, and just the sort of giant you’d hope to encounter on a walk through the theological woods—well-read, thoughtful, humble, and wise. St. Ignatius taught us to find God in all things, and Henry certainly does—from philosophy to music, literature to TV shows, loss to profound joy. It is a delight to follow along through his eight decades of encounters with the grace of a God who is not stingily either/or but generously both/and.”
— Cameron Bellm
author of A Consoling Embrace: Prayers for a Time of Pandemic
 
“‘Be someone on whom nothing is lost’—Henry James’s admonition to the writer—is something Patrick Henry must have read in the cradle. In a long and distinguished career he has not ceased from spiritual exploration, always ‘pressing forward,’ and this inventive book, notable for its wide range of reference, radiantly shows an openness to the necessity and vitality of change and new patterns in these giddy times, while honoring the cantus firmus of invaluable traditions. His clear, aphoristic prose is a joy to read. ‘Fully alive’ indeed.”
— Michael Dennis Browne
poet, librettist, and professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota
 
“Patrick Henry offers a story of grace that is embedded in a life. Through memories of his interpersonal relationships, education, travels, and engagement with and enjoyment of pop culture, Henry shows how grace flashes into our lives and reveals new truths as it does. This is a playful Christian spiritual autobiography that teaches the reader while also encouraging her to reflect more deeply on her own story.”
— Kristel Clayville
senior fellow, MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, University of Chicago
 
“‘This is my first (and last?) foray into the field of American religion.’ That’s how Patrick Henry self-identified decades back for a journal bio. We should all rejoice his prediction was mistaken. His newest book is the perfect antidote to our American age of spiritual discontent, his faith the right prescription for today: one shorn of doctrinal triumphalism, stamped with intellectual honesty and rigor, ever open to discovering religious wisdom in many crevices and byways. Reading this beautifully written spiritual autobiography instantly brought to mind W. H. Auden’s observation that ‘a Christian is never something one is, only something one can pray to become.’ For religious seekers on their way to becoming, no matter what their particular label, Flashes of Grace shows the way forward.”
—Barry D. Cytron
rabbi and former director of the Collegeville Institute Multi-Religious Fellows Program
 
Flashes of Grace is a fascinating book. Written with the swoop and dip of lively conversation, and ranging through a lifetime of opinions and experiences, it is a portrait of a deeply sincere Christian fully open to being astonished and illuminated by a changing world. Since Patrick is a scholar and a teacher, his personal musings are infused with the history of religion. I learned so much from this book! Its good-spirited honesty cheered me up.”
— Norman Fischer
Zen Buddhist priest and author of The World Could Be Otherwise: Imagination and the Bodhisattva Path
 
“Patrick Henry, in his latest book, makes some brave forays into questions of faith, history, orthodoxy, ecumenism, and hope. His style, at the same time erudite and accessible, always honest, and with an occasional whimsical touch, invites us to test old boundaries and certainties and to do so with a sense of joy and adventure. One could easily imagine this book serving as a pungent and provocative catalyst for discussion groups, whether in or beyond formal religious communities.”
— James Gertmenian
senior minister emeritus at Plymouth Congregational Church, Minneapolis
 
Flashes of Grace offers thirty-three glimpses of wisdom gained from a lifetime of listening. The book’s insights are drawn from the well of memory and poured with just the right mix of humility, honesty, and irony. The preacher’s impossible job—speaking plainly of that which is inscrutable—is made slightly less intimidating by hearing the story that unfolds in this collection of encounters with grace.”
— Timothy Hart-Andersen
senior pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis
 
“Patrick Henry’s Flashes of Grace is a contemplative ordering of the often-disordered fragments of divine wisdom lodged in him throughout his long life. Without letting go of the traditions and education that ground him, he explores an expanding universe of science, religion, and social change that expose and enhance, challenge and confirm his deeply held Christian faith. His teachers along the way are as likely to be a Star Trek captain or his own small daughters as Thomas Aquinas or Albert Einstein. Ultimately, it is grace he navigates by and grace he invites us to encounter with him.”
— Michael N. McGregor
author of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax
 
“Patrick Henry is one of the wisest people I know, so I am not surprised he has written so beautifully on grace. This artful book shows there is hope in unexpected places and that our troubled age is not the last word on the future. Drawing readers in with skillful stories, his book is like a drink of cool water in a dry land.”
— Linda A. Mercadante
author of Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious
 
Flashes of Grace propels the Christian theological tradition forward into new terrain. With references both ancient and contemporary (and to the 24th century—when he reflects on Star Trek: The Next Generation), Henry draws us into the depths of his question ‘Why am I Christian?’ through telling stories of his encounters with God’s grace—stories that open our imaginations to create fresh theological ideas for future generations. With fluency in the Christian tradition(s) and provocations to take the Christian faith into territories yet to be discovered—to ‘explore strange new worlds’—he challenges readers to examine their own narratives.”
— Ann M. Pederson
professor of religion at Augustana University and adjunct professor in the section for ethics and humanities at Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota
 
Publishers Weekly
“Any Christian will find inspiration in this glowing testament to living a God-infused life.”
 
------
 
The following article is reprinted from Publishers Weekly

By Ann Byle Feb 08, 2021 


Patrick Henry, retired executive director of the Collegeville Institute of Ecumenical Research in Minnesota, reflects on how he found varied facets of God’s grace in things simple and complex, ancient and modern. For his new book, Flashes of Grace: 33 Encounters with God (Eerdmans, out now) he looks everywhere — from Christian patriarchs such as Saint Benedict of Nursia to Katniss Everdeen, the fictional heroine of The Hunger Games, to Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

PW  talked to Patrick Henry about mystery and marvel and “loosening the spiritual joints.”

(This conversation has been edited for clarity and length)

What prompted you to write this book now, at age 81?

This book emerged after I suspected I didn’t have anything more to say. I had published The Ironic Christian’s Companion (Riverhead) in 1999 and thought I’d said all I needed to. Flashes of Grace got its jolt into becoming a book when I realized Star Trek: The Next Generation was a clue for me about what I consider essential and important about the Christian tradition, a tradition that is the Rosetta Stone by which I try to interpret the mystery, marvel, and glory of the world in which I live.

What about Captain Picard is so telling of your practice of Christianity?

Captain Picard is a listener. He doesn’t just listen, but also pays attention to what the speakers are saying and what they mean by what they say. I believe this is the closest approximation to what I think of as a Christian mindset or attitude.

You describe, rather than define, "grace." Why?

This book sums up what I want to say. If I’m to be remembered for anything, I would like people to say that this is what Patrick, in his long and privileged life, came to understand and would like to communicate about God and his* grace. As I say in the prologue, “I don’t know how to say what the grace of God is. What I can say is what it’s like for me.”

What do you hope your book does for readers?

I want them to come away from this book loosening up their spiritual joints and becoming free and spontaneous in their actions. I like to imagine the book triggering the kinds of memories that ricochet and syncopate through them to feel prompted, encouraged, challenged, and reassured to do this same kind of reflecting.


[*I am quite certain that I did not use a masculine pronoun for God when speaking with the interviewer.]

----------------

A gratifying appreciation for the book by Diane Millis at the Amazon site (I especially appreciate her crediting me with a "dialogical imagination"):

In this captivating collection of essays, Patrick Henry offers us a ringside seat as we witness his dialogical imagination at work. Henry shows us how he makes meaning of the grace waiting to be found in disparate sources (from John Stuart Mill to Ally McBeal) and difficult experiences (a parent’s suicide). For all those who aspire to hone their attentiveness to mystery, Flashes of Grace: 33 Encounters with God offers a robust resource for daily devotion (e.g., reading one of the 33 encounters with God each day), as well as a toolkit for small group discussion (inviting us to notice and name where we are glimpsing grace in our own lives).