I used to intensely dislike (hate) that phrase. Even now I am not fond of it, and probably wouldn't use it, though I consider it in a different way than most people.
I would read, or hear, about some person's unfortunate situation and, inevitably, someone would use that phrase "There, but for the grace of God, go I." I would scream. Really. Why would a person say that? It's a presumption that I have grace and you don't, isn't it?
This past Sunday, at RCIA class, we (we are all learning, right?) learned about grace. Well, you know I'm all about grace, right? I'm praying for it all the time. But young people, who have little experience in faith, and some with no Christian faith at all, are kind of clueless about faith. It's this invisible thing. It comes from God. We can't earn it. It's necessary for salvation. All of the above.
Grace is given to me when I need it. Not a moment before. I can not look at a situation and know whether or not I can handle it until I am living it, because the grace necessary to cope is not present in my anticipatory moment. Grace is given to us in the sacraments, like in Matrimony, giving us the grace to succeed in marriage, to handle the difficulties we face in that vocation. Grace is also given just because God loves us, if we are open to His love. It helps us every moment of every day. That smart remark you wanted to make to your husband the other day but didn't? Grace. Not losing it in the face of crayon on three walls in the family room? Grace. We don't always take it, and use it, though it's always there. Sometimes we fail, because that imaginary forcefield (human weakness) that sometimes surrounds us in life, blocks the way of grace. But, grace helps us pick ourselves up, get to Confession and receive the Eucharist. We go back to God over and over because of grace.
So this phrase, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." What does it really mean? It does not mean I have grace and you don't, and therefore something unfortunate happened to you. It does not mean, God loves me and so I am not homeless, drunk, have cancer, have a handicapped child, whatever.
What the phrase really means, in my opinion, is that, looking upon your situation, from my vantage point, I do not have the grace to experience your situation, because I am not afforded the grace you are. I can not "walk a mile in your shoes" because it is your shoes which are provided the grace mine are not. You might look at me and say "there, but for the grace of God, go I" and I truly don't have a problem with my "miserable" situation, because God is showering me with the grace to cope.
At our RCIA meeting Sunday, I brought this phrase up in discussion. Fr. Chuck said he had never really thought about that phrase in regard to living in situations others would perceive as unfortunate, though we have the grace to feel otherwise. It was an enlightening discussion because as Father and I finished our dialogue, one of the students raised her hand and inquired, "What is the phrase again? I have never heard it." Father then asked who had heard of the phrase, and not one had. Is that good or bad, I don't know.