Somewhere there may exist Seven Simple Steps to Gratitude. Certainly the number of books making such pithy promises are legion. However, I've found that many of these books are actually about happiness, not gratitude. In fact, often I hear gratitude bandied about as a means toward achieving a happier life. Feeling down? Want to be happy? Then count your blessings! It's as if gratitude were one more massage technique for the ego. Whatever gratitude may be, it courses miles beneath the babbling brook of forced optimism. Self-suggestion may be about as far as gratitude can get without authentic spirituality.
But Christianity has a different take, one that reclaims the bona fide depth of being. Gratitude is that experience of thankfulness that arises from living life coram Deo--before God. Gratitude's an organic opening of the heart to thankfulness and praise that can be cultivated, regardless of one's mood or life circumstance. You read that correctly: gratitude is an organic experience that can be cultivated. Much like a seed, gratitude bears a vital secret whose full harvest cannot be forced but begs for our attentive collaboration. Gratitude arises from living in a manner that takes God as a given--and as the Giver. We enter each day presupposing, as theologian George Stroup puts it, "that human life once was, is now, and forever shall be 'before God.'"
Such "beforeness" lies behind the Apostle Paul's audacious encouragement to: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks" (I Thessalonians 5:16-18). Notice that tiny
preposition in. It's big. Paul does not give thanks for everything, but in the midst of everything. The great theologian Paul Tillich once preached a
sermon titled "In Everything Give Thanks." (It's well worth reading. You can find it in The Eternal Now.) Here he says, "There are no limits to situations in which to thank, but there
are limits to things for which thanks can be expressed." He continues, "Can we honestly give thanks for the frustrations, accidents, and diseases that strike us? We
cannot in the moment they take hold of us. Here is one of the many situations where piety can degenerate into dishonesty." Then this, "Out of the depths the psalmist
cries to God; he does not thank God. This is honest, realistic--a realism born out of the awareness of the divine presence." But Tillich also allows for time to heal, for
gratitude to have its due season: "And I believe that at some time in our lives all of us have had experiences that were nothing but evil when they happened, but that became good later and the
object of honest thanks."
The experience of gratitude may be hard to define because it rests so closely to our very experience of God. In Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton spends a whole chapter pointing out how intimately related our faith is to our experience of gratitude. He equates ingratitude with the "primal sin of not knowing God." We can have knowledge of God, but not be grateful for our knowledge. We might know about God, but not allow this to gladden us with God's love. For Merton, "Our knowledge of God is perfected by gratitude: we are thankful and rejoice in the experience of the trust that God is love." He concludes:
To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of God's love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from God. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.
The trick seems to be to "start close in," as poet David Whyte might say, to toss the definitions and focus on how we experience the goodness of God. Gratitude is not an abstract virtue
to strive for, but a living emanation of God's very presence. So rather explore propositions about gratitude, I'd like to mention a few experiences where gratitude found me, where I met the
goodness and love of God more immediately, out of the place of encounter, prepositionally instead of propositionally.
With gratitude, my attention tends to shift from the weighty Big Picture to the little things that startle and still. While walking the dog, gratitude opens my eyes and ears to a mockingbird on a
highline wire above me, moving through her birdsong repertoire. While listening to a friend, thankfulness reveals the tremble in the hand, or the catch in the throat, as he tells a story. While
hiking, praise points out a yellow cactus blossom in the distance, wavering like a mirage in the desert heat. Whether noticing these small things triggers gratitude or gratitude triggers the
noticing is anyone's guess. I only know that gratitude and attentiveness seem to dovetail. What Merton sensed about gratitude now bears its own truth in my life: I am slowly beginning to
"recognize the love of God in everything."
Gratitude brings us back to the land of the living. Gratitude's first inkling may be in the "places of the heart," surely, but like a flash it also flares in the streets, or along the valley
path, or in the checkout line at Target, blessing wherever we happen to be at the time. Gratitude bridges our "inscape" with our "landscape." It situates us wholly within the passing moment. Just
as there are no "dittos among souls," as Baron von Hugel once put it, there are no generic sacred places either. Grace is everywhere, but given our peculiar proclivities, certain places
prove to be more sacred than others. For some, Disney World might be a thin place, or Las Vegas, even Branson. For me, it's Nada Carmelite Hermitage in Crestone, CO.
At Nada my soul dilates, my aperture on the world opens up. Sure, there are plenty of grand sights to catch the eye: the vast blue sky by day, the immense night canopied with stars, the vertiginous Sangre de Cristo peaks rising to 14,000 feet, the desert valley that rolls on forever. But what strikes me most is how minutely focused my attention becomes with each retreat. For example, the bowl (pictured above) was found sitting empty outside my hermitage during my last stay. I figured another retreatant had placed it there to catch rainwater in the desert for the thirsty birds or other critters that happened along. Since the rain had not done its job of late, I filled the dish with tap water and waited. Before long, God landed this spaceship, brimming with raucous Pinyon Jays from Planet Lord Knows Where. They threw their own dance party of blue just outside my window (pictured below). One hung a tiny disco ball the size of an acorn in a nearby scrub oak. Another dove into the pool with his clothes on. The rest had a high time squawking about, just happy to be here. And this was about as productive as my morning got that day.
On the last day of the retreat, I spotted this plastic water jug and bowl (pictured left) in another part of the desert, placed there along a path by hikers with a caring intent. Again I was struck by how this place seemed to work on us, enlarging our hearts and sharpening our vision for the least of these. Compassion blossomed. I found myself growing more gentle and receptive as gratitude took root again.
While I was in Asheville, NC this summer, celebrating our son's wedding, we stayed in a cabin high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It became a sacred place for us. Our attention shifted to the little things throughout that week that led up to the Big Event, all these green trees, crepe myrtles, cicadas' evensong, visits with friends and family. Even the much-anticipated wedding vows shared by Zak and Kathleen were comprised of small, precise words chosen by large hearts. I came across this sweet sign (to the left) while out walking one morning and was reminded again of how beauty draws us to the small, opening up a renewed penchant for the elementary, the elements that mysteriously comprise what is sometimes called the "larger life." As gratitude takes over, the usual blur of harried perception eases into lucidity again. We slow down. Take it in. Stop for kittens.
Back in 1923, poet and physician William Carlos Williams wrote a short poem called "XXII" and published it in his collection Spring and All. It became known as "The Red Wheelbarrow," one of his biggest, most anthologized, poems:
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Much ink has been spilt by students and scholars extolling the virtue of this comically simple and homely one-sentence poem. They gush over how it epitomizes early 20th century Imagistic poetry
in the merging of meaning and form, love how it knifes through flabby verbiage and cuts to the gist of how things are. They point out Williams' photographic fascination with "things in
themselves," or how he explores perception as absolutely necessary to life. It's as if they feel the need to go to great length to offer a loquacious apology for the poem's spare, quiet
All this is interesting enough, but the experiential prompting behind the poem is mentioned far less. Williams later explained that the poem's inspiration "sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the ﬁsh. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his backyard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing." It turns out that "Marshall" was Thaddeus Lloyd Marshall Sr., who lived just a few blocks up the street from Williams in Rutherford, New Jersey. So the poem emerges from his gratitude for a friend, an empathy, an affectionate coming together of neighbors that happened to cross the line on the color bar.
When I'm grateful I say thank you. I say that to convey to the giver my connection, my grateful dependency. Thank you for the gift you gave me. It may have come from you. It may have come through
you. But it all came coram Deo, before God. Without God, without you, the giving and receiving of gifts, I might live, but I would never come alive. Because of you, I am gradually
recognizing the love of God in all things, great and small, light and dark.
So much depends upon . . . a red wheelbarrow, a well-loved kitten, a neighbor who invites you into his backyard for a chat one day, an impromptu Pinyon Jay Rave outside your window, even white
hens pecking and scratching about the grass--all these minute visitations of God, of grace that splays the heart open with gratitude. In fact, if I had only one image to convey what gratitude is
like in the naked moment, I'd say that it resembles that tilted terra cotta bowl of mirror-still water. One grateful and glad heart, poised and open in the desert, offering itself to all who
thirst as a way of saying thank you before God.