In one of her strange and gleaming essays in The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson describes grace this way:

‘Grace’ is a word without synonyms, a concept without paraphrase. It might seem to have distinct meanings, aesthetic and theological, but these are aspects of one thing—an alleviation, whether of guilt, of self-interest, or of limitation. I have chosen the word ‘alleviation’ with some care. It means the lifting or easing of a burdensome weight. I suppose the moon, when it raises the tide, can be said to alleviate the imponderably burdensome mass of the sea. This is an uncanny phenomenon certainly.

That paragraph astonished me. It felt like one of the most delightful constellations of sentences I’d ever received. And I say received because reading it felt like a gift even to read it. Such a cosmic metaphor, but such gentleness there, too. What struck me most was her ability to see an abstract concept, a single word used with great variety across “aesthetic and theological” settings, and to explain the core of it in an image both beautiful and concrete.

As soon as I read Robinson’s paragraph, I copied it down, knowing I would want to return to it. The language echoed in my mind for some time. And then, another, much older quotation joined it. Pondus meum amor meus. “My weight is my love,” writes Augustine. Whether love or grace, heaviness somehow seems a suitable metaphor.

In Robinson’s imagery, gravity (or gravity-defiance) is largely positive. She is talking about grace, after all. For Augustine, however, the weight of his love is morally complicated. He continually sees how his desires can pull him in such different directions.

Much of Augustine’s Confessions describe gravity in relation to holy desire. In the final section, he contemplates the creation story as an allegory of God’s activity in the church. Taking his time with each verse of Genesis 1, Augustine becomes preoccupied for some time with God’s Spirit “borne above the waters,” and this image sparks in Augustine’s mind a vivid vision of our relation to God:

‘Your good Spirit’ ‘was borne above the waters,’ but not borne up by them as if resting weight on them. When scripture says your Spirit rests on people, it means that the Spirit makes them rest on himself.

Here, lightness and gravity describe our resting reliance on God, who is rest himself. And a little later, Augustine expands the imagery of ascent to God:

Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me. By your gift we are set on fire and carried upwards: we grow red hot and ascend. We climb ‘the ascents in our heart,’ and sing ‘the song of steps.’ Lit by your fire, your good fire, we grow red-hot and ascend, as we move upwards ‘to the peace of Jerusalem.’ ‘For I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord.’ There we will be brought to our place by a good will, so that we want nothing but to stay there for ever.”

God’s own gravity draws Augustine’s soul up to God, while a weaker, but more violent force counters the Spirit’s transcendence. Using the same metaphors of weight and gravity, Augustine lays bare his longings for sin and sanctity:

To whom can I expound, and with what words can I express, the weight of cupidity pulling us downwards into the precipitous abyss and the lifting up of love given by your Spirit who was ‘borne above the waters’? To whom can I communicate this? How can I speak about it? For it is not about literal places where we sink down and rise up. This symbolic language contains a resemblance, but also a difference. It means our feelings and our loves. The impurity of our spirit flows downwards because of our love of anxieties, and the holiness which is yours draws us upwards in a love of freedom from anxiety. So we may lift up our heart and hold it to you, where your Spirit is ‘borne above the waters’, and we come to the supereminent resting-place when our soul has passed over ‘the waters that are without substance.’

With a scope almost as grand as Robinson’s planetary vision, Augustine describes desire dragging us into a lightless chasm or hoisting us toward heaven. Note that it is not human desire alone that changes the state of the soul. Augustine is careful to show that any reorientation of our desire to be toward God is itself “given by [God’s] Spirit.” As Augustine begins his Confessions, “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” He later explains the life of the soul in terms of physical motion:

A body by its weight tends to move towards its proper place. The weight’s movement is not necessarily downwards, but to its appropriate position: fire tends to move upwards, a stone downwards. They are acted on by their respective weights; they seek their own place. Oil poured under water is drawn up to the surface on top of the water. Water poured on top of oil sinks below the oil. They are acted on by their respective densities, they seek their own place. Things which are not in their intended position are restless. Once they are in their ordered position, they are at rest.

The Holy Spirit enflames our souls so that we follow Newton’s First Law: as a body in motion stays in motion “unless acted upon by an outside force,” we remain anxious, agitated, and full of misdirected desire until God, the supreme Other, acts upon us to give us peace in himself.

Of course, the laws of physics provide a useful metaphor for God’s relationship with humans, but that relationship is by no means “natural.” To return to Robinson’s language once again, this time in the title of Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, we find an important reminder of how extraordinary is God’s intervention in our lives:

We must always expect things to happen in conformity with the laws of gravity unless there is supernatural intervention.

Put otherwise:

All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception.