Some of you are aware that I am attending the Academy for Spiritual Formation that meets once a quarter for a week at San Damiano, a Franciscan Conference Center. At the Academy every morning we would open our hoarse voices with a song phrase –
O God open our lips, and we shall declare your praise.
It was followed by this prayer.
New every morning is your love, great God of light,
and all day long you are working for good in the world.
Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully
with our neighbors and all your creation. Amen.
The opening psalm phrase and the prayer invited us to receive the new day with gratitude, and open our hearts to how God would work in our lives and in the world. During the week, my favorite time of day was after the hour of silence after the first lecture with Rabbi David Horowitz – who was teaching us about Judaism. I went outside to a place where the sun was bathing the earth with warmth and light, looking out across the valley at Mt. Diablo. Each day in those moments, I breathed in a sigh of contentment and gratitude – for life, for breath, for beauty. At the end of the week, we had an opportunity at one of our evening services to receive a blessing from the Rabbi. I had been so profoundly touched throughout the week by Rabbi David’s presence with us that I practically leaped out of my seat to receive a blessing from this holy man. I was the first one. He held his arms over my shoulders, as if summoning the heavens. He spoke words in English, and then he switched to Hebrew, as he placed his hands gently upon my ears:
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha`olam…
Blessed are You, LORD our God, Creator of the universe.
I don’t even remember the words he prayed following that familiar prayer, but In that moment, I felt the heavens open up, and God’s grace pour down upon me, and all I could do is beam at Rabbi David’s radiant face looking at me with joy. I don’t think it is a moment I will ever forget. The interesting thing that happened is that that blessing continued to shower OVER ME, as I watched others line up to receive a similar blessing. It wasn’t just for me alone, it was offered to all of us, just like God’s grace, even though after blessing about 30 of us, the Rabbi’s arms continually dropped lower throughout the blessing time.
I think gratitude does that – when we are grateful, our hearts open wide for others to experience the gift of blessing, the gift of gratitude as well. Diana Butler Bass: “Grateul: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks.” There is an interesting thing about gratitude—it always comes with a preposition. We are grateful for something, grateful to someone, and grateful with others. You feel grateful for a beautiful sunrise, grateful to a friend, grateful with soaring geese. In that moment, gratitude connects us to nature’s rhythms, to a distant friend, to other creatures. The world of creation we live in offers its gifts—indiscriminately—and gratitude is offering a word of “thanks” for them, to a friend, perhaps to God. A new awareness of connection comes alive. Robert Emmons:
“Gratitude takes us outside ourselves, where we see ourselves as part of a larger, intricate network of sustaining relationships, relationships that are mutually reciprocal.”
Gratitude is not just a private feeling but is also inherently social, connecting us with others. All of a sudden, your heart opens up, and you feel, if momentarily, gratitude for life – Awe, appreciation, surprise, humility – these things speak of our deepest needs & longings.
In the last 2 decades, researchers have discovered a link between the heart and gratitude- it drives out toxic emotions of resentment, anger, envy, and may be associated with better long-term emotional & physical health in transplant recipients. Connections between well-being, physical health, lower levels of anxiety, depression, decreased panic attacks, longevity. Live happier lives, more attentive to pleasure, experience less envy, more contentment, increased self-esteem, stronger relationships, deeper spirituality, boosted creativity. Don’t we all want to sign up for that?
I would bet that most of us would say, absolutely. I want some of that. What gets in the way?
As an emotion, gratitude can be elusive – easily blocked by regret, loss, anger and fear.
It turns out gratitude is a spiritual practice, and that gratitude begets gratitude, AND in the midst of it there is life – things don’t go the way we desire, relationships get wonky, we don’t get the job we wanted, rejection in small & large doses, health crises, violence, betrayal, dishonesty, injustice, natural disasters like the devastating fires consuming acre after acre in CA, like another senseless shooting at a dance club in Thousand Oaks, geography that is now also consumed by fire. If we were to quote the verse from Thessalonians: Rejoice always…give thanks in all circumstances, that would feel downright abusive & cruel. We are not called to be thankful for injustice, evil, violence or oppression. That would make no sense when we trust in a God whose will is for peace & healing. Telling victims to be grateful for trauma, violence or abuse only wounds those who have suffered more. God does not ask us to be thankful for ways people’s hearts are grieving, traumatized, still broken. It is NOT the answer to violence & injustice.
But let’s go back to the understanding that gratitude is prefaced by prepositions. When life is going well and we experience warm feelings, we can easily be grateful FOR whatever it is that we are experiencing as gift in the moment. But this verse from Thessalonians does not preface gratitude with the preposition FOR. Let’s hear it again:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks IN all circumstances.
We get confused between giving thanks in all things vs for all things. The Bible does not say that everything happens for a reason and we should give thanks. No, the trajectory is recognizing God’s deep, abiding grace IN the midst of, THROUGOUT all of our lives. The trajectory is for good, even in the midst of Bad things happening. And that’s where Gratitude becomes resistance, strengthening the core of our being to receive grace, to offer grace.
Gratitude at its deepest and most transformative is not warm feelings about what we have. Instead, it is the deep ability to embrace the gift of who we are, that we are. Gratitude is the emotional response to the surprise of our very existence. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Every day, there are gifts. Whether we are facing a crisis or not, no matter our challenges or feelings, there are gifts, most of which go unnoticed, unappreciated, and sometimes disregarded. Other times they take us by surprise-when gratitude wells up in our being – with a mixture of humility & joy. As a spiritual practice, If we cultivate our awareness to see those gifts more often, something else happens. Thankfulness becomes more habitual, a regular part of how we respond to the world. Gratitude for the good things will still hold the power to surprise and elicit a strong emotional response. However, as a habit in the midst of hard times, it also becomes a steadying companion. Gratitude for the small things can emerge as a daily disposition of appreciation toward familiar gifts. Notice times when you are grateful: is it possible to be dominated by fear, anxiety, anger AND experience gratitude at the same time?
There is a way for gratitude to surround and enfold pain in a greater good. Henri Nouwen-To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives, including moments of sorrow & rejection, that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our being as a gift of God to be grateful for.
This kind of Spiritual Practice involves choice. We can choose to focus on our failures or our losses, on what we feel entitled to or what we deserve. We can choose anger, fear, resentment, grief, or pain. We can choose to live our lives stuck in our worst moments. We can choose to believe that everyone & everything are against us. We can choose to define ourselves on the basis of someone else’s violence, prejudice, or injustice toward us. We can choose every negative philosophy, theology, or ideology that cuts us off from grace, and we can choose to think there is no one and nothing to thank.
Most of us do not willingly say, “I have decided to live my life free from thanksgiving.” Even at ungrateful moments, there may be a tug toward something else. But it can be hard to get there. Ingratitude often results from misunderstanding the nature of thanks, failing to see the larger picture of our lives, or forgetting to nurture a spirit of gratefulness. We take life for granted, or forget to recall even the smallest of life’s blessings. But those times when, if even for a moment, we choose gratefulness, that choice builds on itself and begins to create a spiral of appreciation. The first choice of focusing on gratitude sets up the next choice, and the next, and the next one beyond that. To choose gratitude is to hear an inner urging toward thanks, to be aware of the grace in life, and to respond, thus turning to an invitation for a deeper life lived in awareness of God’s grace.
When you look for things to be grateful for, you find them. When you start looking, you discover Like all habits, gratitude builds on itself. Gratitude is a habit of awareness that reshapes our self-understanding and the choices we make. Maya Angelou: “If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present – gratefully.”
Gratitude is a disposition that can be chosen and cultivated, an outlook toward life that manifests itself in actions – instead of an attitude of gratitude – it is an ethic. Developing habits and practices of gratefulness that change us for the better. We can develop cues to initiate thankfulness and establish routines to foster gratitude. Beyond gratitude journals – we can establish cues like when you wake up or before each meal or examen at the end of the day. Cues remind us to look for blessings at particular times and places.
Ignation practice of the examen is a review of the day in a simple way. Review the day recalling the places where you felt God’s presence and review the day with gratitude, how grace flowed through the day, how God’s presence gave us strength and courage. We allow ourselves to feel grateful even if the day wasn’t perfect. Not that we feel especially grateful all the time. But stop to name them. Helps us move into the next day looking for opportunities to be grateful instead of looking for things to complain about. Then choose something from your day and you pray for it. Then you close in prayer asking God to give you light and guidance, thanking God for God’s presence. We don’t have to thank God for all things but an ethic of gratitude giving thanks to God IN all things.
May we have the courage to step into the spiritual practices of experiencing gratitude in our lives. Amen.
16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.