Grief brings ‘wisdom through the awful grace of God’

Came across a great quote from a Greek poet this week by watching part of the PBS series on Bobby Kennedy. While Bobby was running for president, MLK was brutally gunned down (4/4/68). RFK had been scheduled to make a speech to a large gathering of African Americans in Indianapolis. Since this time wasn’t an age of the 24 hour news cycle, RFK had to be the bearer of the terrible news to his audience. He spoke for just a few minutes from the heart and connected with his audience by talking about the experience of his own brother’s assassination. Here’s one piece of his speech (if you watch to the end you find the Aeschylus says in the sentence prior to the italics below: He who learns must suffer. So true!):

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.”

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 and lawlessness, but is 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 whether they be black.

Isn’t this so true? Against our will, the pain of grief brings wisdom and experience. And in the end, we see the grace of God even when we never feel good about the experience.

See this link if you want to read/hear the entire RFK speech:


Filed under Great Quotes, Meditations, suffering

20 responses to “Grief brings ‘wisdom through the awful grace of God’

  1. I was looking online for Aeschylus’s quote on The Awful Grace, and happened on your musings.
    whether a Christian psychologist or simply a person concerned with our humanity and lack thereof, your thought are welcome to me. i hadn’t heard Bobby’s speech so that was also welcome.

    For those of us who work in the field of human understand (and lack of it) we have a challenge to help people find their own humanity and to reach out to others in whatever way they are able.
    i’ll be reading more of your pages.
    thank you, Doniella (from Seattle)

  2. Mahender

    I watched the RFK special on PBS as well. Impressions I was left with were:
    What a tremendous intellectuall difference between the leadership of RFK and that of leaders of today! RFK could summon up on the spot a deeply felt favorite poem (of Aeschylus) that was conveyed sincerely and so fittingly for the occasion!
    Yet, it was the poem itself (quoted in your blog) that left a greater impression on me. I had to look it up, and thankfully, came across your blog!

  3. Jim Stoebner

    Thank you. I am an MSW, now retired, and a confessing Christian (dealing w/ some depression and and hope from a caring family and friends – now in remission), saw the same PBS story. My wife and I commented that Bobby reminded us of a time, and the production helped this, that there were politicians who spoke from the heart, and could find ways to articulate same. The quote from Aeschylusus moved me and caused the Google search that yielded your web contact.

    The profundity of the quote (inclulding the misstatements) fits my thoughts and reinforces my growing understanding of the ‘awful grace of god.

    Would appreciate starting a conversation – email, coffee, etc


    Jim Stoebner
    612 432 1075


  4. David Haaland

    I came across the same special last night. I watched the special with a greater attention last night than the first time; I must say that I went to bed crying for Bobby and for our nation. I am a proud citizen by choice and love those types of specials.

    This morning, I searched for the speech and the poet and came across this blog and felt obligated to post what I think of our current situation. Bobby as he was campaigning said something that truly fits today’s situation very well. He mentioned that we should be aware of our anomies abroad and our misguided policies. (This is not a direct quote).

    I think Webster Dictionary or google should bring up George W. Busch when someone looks up “misguided policies”.

    After hearing Bobby’s speech last night, I had to look up to see our current president ever went to college and much to my surprise I found out that he graduated from Yale in June 1948. Wow I guess Yale never will mean anything to me after today.

    Keep the faith!!

  5. James

    I find it ironic that JFK was fond of using a Somerset Maugham quotation to express nearly the exact opposite sentiment:

    “Pain does not ennoble it embitters.”

  6. KEN

    “Isn’t this so true? Against our will, the pain of grief brings wisdom and experience. And in the end, we see the grace of God even when we never feel good about the experience.”

    It seems that as you begin to understand this more and more it brings a sense of freedom or release of the demand of “figuring out” the “why” for the pain in our lives and leaves you with the opportunity for further healing to the wounds. The memory is still never easy, but is becoming a more accepted part of my story. How I am thankful that His healing continues and will on day be completed and experienced.

  7. chuck

    HAMILTON’S 1937 AESCHYLUS (Agamemnon 179-183):

    Drop, drop– in our sleep, upon the heart
    sorrow falls, memory’s pain,
    and to us, though against our very will,
    even in our own despite,
    comes wisdom,
    by the awful grace of God.

  8. tim

    one reason that I find this poem so profound is that it implies that pain holds on to us as we hold onto it. And against our will, we find wisdom – to me almost implies that sometimes we are unwilling to let go of grief because it’s like severing the final emotional connection to departed. But alas, we do let go and we do learn that life goes on. Bobby was well versed in this pain and in this poem.

  9. Carl Bailey

    This is in reply to the comment of James, (January 15, 2008), about the quote JFK used to express his thoughts about pain. I agree with that quote also; bitterness does come from pain. I also believe that the feelings of bitterness, or even hatred are only a beginning to the emotions we feel when we experience an extremely close or especially devastating loss. Aeschylus had it right. I think these emotions and feelings are part of the overall process we must go through, which eventually leads us to understanding and ultimately wisdom. I sincerely believe that it’s the adversities and bad experiences in our lives that shape and develop our characters.

  10. Helen KennedyIreland

    ah ! am addicted to this poem , caught me unaware when I heard Bobby Kennedy quote it re martin luter . He knew the pain of grief yet the healing and wisdom that follows. …..

  11. Barbara Warren

    can there be anything more profound than this quote? what more needs to be said? nothing. the words cut deeply, their edges sharp as a knife, yet the wound they inflict will slowly heal just as the pain and sorrow of grief and loss will some day do the same. can we live on each day with the faith that our heartache and despair are also cured by time and love? yes. indeed, there is nothing else for us to do.

  12. gordon wickstrom

    This passage from a chorus of the Agamemnon was used in the obituary for the distinguished professor of history Adrian Bantjes who died on a dark road in Wyoming, at age 50, on September 3, 2010. He will be greatly missed.
    I had scanned the Orestia for the passage in the Penguin edition but could not spot it. I am indebted to someone called “Chuck” who hear nailed it down as from the Hamilton translation of 1937 and lines 179ff.
    Comparing five translations of the Orestia on my shelves, I am amazed at how differently the translators render these verses. I believe Hamilton is the most English, because the most biblical in feel.

  13. Robert

    It’s interesting that you take meaning from this section of poetry as if it were written by a Christian instead of a pagan.

    “Zeus, who showed mortals the path to wisdom, who ordained that through the affliction a lesson should prevail. And it trickles in sleep across the heart, a pain that keeps suffering in mind, and comes home to men who refuse to be wise. But where is the grace of gods who wield the great helm with violence?”

  14. Robert, no I don’t take it as if it were written by a Christian. But, I do make an application to my own faith. Thanks for stopping by.

  15. Linda Lewis


    • Linda, the English word “awful” is used in many ways and does not always mean horrible. The RSV translates Deut 28:58 in such a way as to call the Lord’s name “awful.” In this case the writer is acknowledging some of God’s grace is something to be in awe and reverence and some fear of. Some of God’s grace is indeed severe. It is not always light and airy. It can be a grace to be put in prison so as to be no longer able to be able to murder. Paul receives the grace of blindness on his way to kill Christians. Later, he receives God’s grace to tolerate something he calls a “thorn in the flesh.”

      • Phil: I was researching a sermon on John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” when I was led by a Leonard Sweet message to the Bobby Kennedy speech. I kept Googling the phrase “Awful Grace” and came upon your blog post. Thanks so much for your insight and words.

  16. Robert

    “A deep, religious thinker, no poet has ever presented evil in such stark and tragic terms. He had an exalted view of Zeus, whom he celebrated with a grand simplicity reminiscent of David’s Psalms, and a faith in progress and the healing power of time.”
    Aeschylus was one of many Greeks who had been initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, a cult to Demeter based in his hometown of Eleusis. As the name implies, members of the cult were supposed to have gained some secret knowledge. The Eleusinian Mysteries were initiation ceremonies held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at Eleusis in ancient Greece. Of all the mysteries celebrated in ancient times, these were held to be the ones of greatest importance. They are believed to be of considerable antiquity, deriving from religious practice of the Mycenaean period and thus predating the Greek Dark Ages. One line of thought by modern scholars has been that the Mysteries were intended “to elevate man above the human sphere into the divine and to assure his redemption by making him a god and so conferring immortality upon him. In 170 AD, the Temple of Demeter was sacked by the Sarmatians but was rebuilt by Marcus Aurelius. As Christianity gained in popularity in the 4th and 5th centuries, Eleusis’s prestige began to fade. Julian, the last pagan emperor of Rome, was also the last emperor to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries.
    One wonders which of the many gods of his time to which Aeschylus may have been referring when he wrote in the play, Agamemnon, “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.” Aeschylus was not a believer in the God of the Christian’s, and therefore was not referring to the “awful grace” of the God of whom the apostle Paul spoke when he said, “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

  17. Ben

    The Chicago Cubs should put the part RFK used in bold, in every game program they sell. It might explain things in a deeper way.

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