Tuesday, November 13, 2012


This fall I attended two day-long conferences on healing, forgiveness, and the work of reconciliation.

Scribbled in my notes: “Gratitude is the key to wholeness.”
Jesus Heals a Leper, Rembrandt, sketch, 1665

The text prompting that note: Luke 17:11-19. Jesus healed ten lepers; nine ran off rejoicing, and one, a Samaritan, returned to give thanks.
"Jesus asked, 'Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?'
"Then he said to him, 'Rise and go; your faith has made you well.'"
They had all been cured of their leprosy. But one, the one who returned with praise and gratitude, received a deeper healing: “Your faith has made you well.”

I've been puzzling over this idea of gratitude and deeper wholeness for several months now. A friend gave me Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, and I've been struck by how Voskamp's determination to be thankful led her from deep depression into a life of joy, and how gratitude gradually undid the damage of a childhood locked in silent grief.

I've experienced much of this myself. I grew up in a household beset with grievance: “If only” was a frequent refrain. I watched how “If only” can blossom into bitterness and resentment, rage, hatred, violence. Grievance feeds grievance, until every incident, every word, is part of a narrative of injustice and deprivation.

I've seen the same story play out in households I've been close to. Abandonment, resentment, jealousy, rage: once the dial is set to grievance, the story plays out toward a predictably disturbing end.

On a larger stage the story is the same. The language of this past week, for those expecting a different end to our national election, is full of blame, bitterness, anger, hints of retribution.

Is gratitude possible when the default mode is grievance? Is it possible to learn gratitude as a spiritual discipline that can reshape our hearts and open the way to emotional health?

It seems the first step toward gratitude is to let go: let go of our own ideas of how the story was to go, let go of the “If onlys”, the sense of blame, the certainty that our way would have been best, that we've been denied the only happy ending.

It occurs to me that repentance is the one way out. I’m reminded of a sermon years ago that cut through a sense of angry entitlement I was struggling with: "Sin is wanting my own way more than God's."

We were in the middle of a move, at an impasse about what kind of house to buy, and I was sure beyond doubt I was right. And furious that the solution I had in mind was out of reach.

And then, in church the morning the decision needed to be made, the rector of Truro Church, John Howe, said "Sin is wanting my own way more than God's," and I saw my anger and bitter determination for what it was: sin. Wanting my way. Inability to listen to any voice outside my own.

Repentance was the turning point, as it has been many times since then. I set aside the single family house I had in mind, the fenced back yard, the garden, and agreed to the brick townhouse in the planned community, just miles from my husband's new job. I didn't know then what I found out quickly: it was a community with a strong network of caring families, with lots of kids, a babysitting co-op, acres of open space for kids to play, paths and fields and pools and playgrounds in greater abundance than anywhere else I've ever seen. Provision far beyond expectation, a lasting blessing in my  life and in the lives of our three children.

Christ in Gethsemane, Michael D. O'brien, Canada
My repentance allowed me to hear more clearly what Jesus said in the garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but yours, be done.”

That repentance led the way to gratitude. The first step was giving up my own narrow view of what would be best, but gratitude takes more than giving up of grievance, more than repenting for holding so fiercely to having things my way.

It takes awareness, attention, grateful acceptance of what's been given.

I wrote several weeks ago about the Ignatian prayer of examen. One of the steps in that daily practice is looking back on the day and giving thanks for where God's hand has been visible.

But what would happen if that kind of attention became part of the ongoing focus of each day? Not just for a few minutes before bed, or a few minutes over coffee the next morning, but throughout the day.

Voskamp's Thousand Gifts moves in that direction:
"I want to see beauty. In the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep." 
G. K, Chesteron, a master of the art of gratitude, wrote in an early notebook:
"You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink."
How do we learn that kind of gratitude? How do we teach it?

Is gratitude a gift? A habit of the heart?

When our children were small, we’d talk at bedtime about the day:
What did you learn today?
What was a thing of beauty?
What are you thankful for?
Then we’d sing a simple song my grandmother taught me:
"Father, we thank thee, for the night
And for the blessed morning light,
For health and strength, and tender care,
And all that makes the day so fair.”
Simple stuff.

But pausing to say thank you can refocus the heart. A 2008 study by Jeffrey Froh, assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University in New York, found that middle school students asked to list up to five things they were grateful for every day for two weeks “experienced a jump in optimism and overall well-being . . .  Furthermore, they were more satisfied with school even three weeks later  

Ann Voskamp found that keeping a notebook of “gifts” forced her to pay atention, to see things she would not have seen.
“I am a hunter of beauty and I move slow and I keep the eyes wide, every fiber of every muscle sensing all wonder and this is the thrill of the hunt and I could be an expert on the life full, the beauty meat that lurks in every moment.
I hunger to taste life.
Northern Harrier in Flight, Dan Pancamo,
Wikimedia Commons, 2010
 A hunter of beauty . . . What a great idea.

I think of that as I prowl the fields by Church Farm pond, watching for the northern harrier low across the dry, brown corn stubble, listening to the sweet call of the white-throated sparrow hidden in the overgrown thickets that edge the wetland pond.

I think of it again as I watch my granddaughter greeting wolf cubs at the Upper Schuykill Valley Park. “I’m telling you, I love this farm!” And I agree: the farm, the wolf pups, the red foxes watching, ears alert, the red-tail hawk spiraling overhead, the lively little face, the firm little hand, the exuberant declaration.

But beauty takes lots of forms:

Jim and friends at the Pottstown recycling center, engaging my two pre-teen assistants in loading the foam crusher, in sorting batteries, in pointing us toward the peacock strutting its stuff on the office roof.

A new acquaintance, over guacamole and flautas de puerco, sharing the story of God’s miraculous grace flowing through her life.

In another notebook, Chesterton wrote: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

I think I would agree.

And one more Chesterton quote:
Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?
This post is part of the November Synchroblog: The Spiritual Practice of Gratitude.  Other posts: 
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