This past weekend I learned that the pillar of grace known as Dr. Dorothy Martyn died after suffering a stroke at her home in North Carolina. An accomplished child psychologist (of the Freudian persuasion), Dorothy possessed a rare gift for helping the sufferers of the world, and I include myself in that number. We talk a lot about “grace in practice” on here. Dorothy Martyn was grace in practice. To me at least.

Every other week for about five years, I would drive out to the home she shared with her husband, Pauline scholar Louis Martyn, in Bethany, CT, where she would listen to me talk and mirror back whatever issue was serving as what she would call the “presenting symptom” that week.

This probably makes her sound like a passive agent. Rest assured, she was anything but. Every few sessions a comment would inspire a mini-lecture on her favorite subject, Emily Dickinson, and I came to relish those occasions (and take furious mental notes), such was her passion and wisdom. Shakespeare was another favorite, as was Penelope Fitzgerald. In fact, Dorothy is the principle reason why there has always been poetry on Mockingbird. She opened up the medium to me in a way that no English class ever could. In all our time together, she only mentioned God once, and it remains the single most affecting (and shortest) sermon I have ever heard.

Fortunately for us all, Dorothy was more than a therapist and teacher, she was an author as well. In 2007, Eerdmans published her indispensable Beyond Deserving: Children, Parents and Responsibility Revisited. Despite the academic-ish title, the real thrust of the book is theological and literary, detailing case study after case study to illustrate how unconditional love and grace play out in the lives of difficult children. The tone is as gracious as the content; if there’s a better book on children and parents (and grace), or on parenting, period, I haven’t read it.

We were fortunate enough blessed to have her speak at the second Mockingbird Conference in 2009, and her talk “The New Recipe: Grace in Family Life” remains an all-time highlight. If you’ve never had the pleasure, I invite you to do so:

In tribute to her life and the many treasures she imparted, I’ve collected three of the longer quotations from Beyond Deserving that we’ve posted over the years. Because I would embolden every word, I have chosen not to embolden any. First, from the introduction:

This phrase, “beyond deserving,” may be a bit puzzling at first glance. After all, the idea of “deserving” permeates our language and is taken for granted in much of our daily life, from grades at school to rewards for exceptional performance – such as whether one “deserved” a gold medal or the Nobel Prize – to our ideas of criminal justice. “He got what he deserved,” we might say about some poor wretch sentenced to execution for a foul crime, or about a child who received a humiliating failing grade in English for plagiarizing his term paper. Or, on the positive side, one might say to a friend, “A nice person like you deserves to have such a lovely necklace.”

My own fascination with the truth that there is something very important beyond our deserving began some decades ago when I heard a sermon on the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16), who all received the same pay from the matter, though some had worked a long day, some a half-day, and some just a short part of a day.

The unforgettable gift from that sermon was a new understanding that the major biblical message is about something that cannot be earned. In this parable, “fairness” and “merit” utterly disappear in an in-breaking of a powerful force that transcends “deserving” altogether.

In my decades of working with children and families, the significance of this force has become incarnate before my eyes, as I have seen the superior potency of an approach to a “misbehaving” child that has no element of “this-for-that” implied in it. Thus gradually, over the years, there grew in my head the following discovery, which provides the fundamental thesis of this book:

Parental love, and, by extension, mentoring love, is authentic and effectual in proportion to the degree that it transcends the commonly assumed principle of the circular exchange, that is to say, “this for that.” All true love is a stranger to that kind of thinking. The “justice” idea of reward according to what is deserved is replaced by the much more powerful force of noncontingent, compassionate alliance with the essential personhood of the other, however small that part may appear to be, against the destructive forces opposing that person’s good.

Needless to say, “noncontingent, compassionate alliance” remains one of the best ever euphemisms for grace, and one that I far too seldom credit to her.

Second, we move to her stunning reframing of the (dreaded?) word “responsibility”, AKA as succinct a survival guide for those involved in any kind of mentoring or pastoral care or ministry as you’ll find anywhere:

‘I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul’ has remained for some who learned the lines in high school a stirring and inspirational thought. It was quoted by Timothy McVeigh, the condemned Oklahoma terrorist, just before his execution. What utter illusion in this person clearly enslaved to the invisible forces working within him! His belief that he had been in charge of himself all along, a free agent making autonomous decisions, is only an extreme case of a very common idea closely related to the popular understanding of ‘responsibility’.

The fact is that the human mind is not made of one piece, fully in control of its actions, able fully to carry out its intentions, acting autonomously on the environment… Along with our intentions, regardless of our varying strengths, what we think and will do, as subjects, is always also under the influence of something else… The evidence that human beings are not entirely in charge of their own castles is too clear to be missed.

We adults do not like to face the fact that we are not the sole directors of our thoughts and actions, because it is a blow to our illusion of autonomy and power and pre-eminence in the universe…

Given the more realistic understanding of the limitations of human autonomy, what does the word “responsibility” mean? In this light, responsibility changes its colors. We are more responsible, not less so, when we are aware of forces that are working on us beyond our ability to control them. Denial of that truth, along with actions that do not take that truth into account, is the height of irresponsibility.”

Finally, in the book’s closing chapter, Dorothy dons her theologian’s hat and delivers the following denouement:

The most important message of the Bible is not a “moral” one in the usual sense. This point can be clearly seen when we reread that annoying parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. Some worked from early morning, some began three hours later, others started six or nine house later, and still others began only at the eleventh hour. Yet all received the same pay for their work! Understandably, the ones who worked for the entire day were very unhappy, and they grumbled to the owner of the vineyard. And how did he respond? He spoke not of an arrangement in which each is paid what he deserves as his due. Instead, he spoke of sovereignty over his own graciousness. The point of the story is that the kind of love that the Bible is about cannot in fact be earned. The same message is given by the Psalmist, who wrote, “He does not deal with us according to our sins/nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps 103:10).

There is also the heartening pronouncement in 1 John 3:18-20, which says in effect that, if our conscience, our inner accuser, condemns us, God is greater than our conscience. Here is the suggestion that our judgment of ourselves is itself subject to correction by a higher authority.

And what form does that correction take? We must be clear that the correction of the demonic use of judgment does not come through permissiveness. God does not revoke the nature of his righteousness to accommodate human rebellion; but he also does not simply abandon human beings to the “devices and designs of our own hearts,” to quote the Book of Common Prayer.

When parental love is not based on this-for-that, we are not at all in the realm of permissiveness. A good parent doesn’t simply wash his or her hands of hurtful behavior and abandon a child to impulse. He or she recognizes that the out-of-control child, attempting to act on a destructive impulse, is at the the mercy of a force within that he may not be able to withstand alone. Paradoxically, one of those destructive impulses is an urge to judge oneself far too harshly. In any event, the parent is there as an ally of that part of the child which is being attacked from within.

Understanding what it is like to be under siege, the good parent, as well as the good mentor, intervenes powerfully and unconditionally on the side of what is good for the child, standing with the child instead of standing over against him in judgment. Such a stance is in fact derived from the way that God enters into human suffering with mercy, moving first with grace – not waiting for bad behavior to change – and with patience, that is to say, sustaining and accompanying the human being without coercion.

And so, as “time’s quaint stream” bears her onward, my prayer is one of thanksgiving, my hope the one articulated by her precious Poet:

A Death blow is a Life blow to Some
Who till they died, did not alive become–
Who had they lived, had died but when
They died, Vitality begun.