Gratitude is the secret to life. The greatest thing is to give thanks for everything. He who has learned this has penetrated the whole mystery of life giving thanks for everything.
— Albert Schweitzer
Gratitude is the looking for the face of God in everything around us.
As a child growing up, and into my early teens, as I sat underneath the large maple in the field, or at the edge of the pond wherein the egret stood, or propped up in my bed, when God was there, as he seemed to be most of the time, I had just one focus to my questions.
God tried to focus my wandering and wondering mind onto lots of different things. But when I was free to ask, I asked only one thing.
I was born in Damariscotta, Maine, a town with a sister township, Newcastle. Between them, they cradled around 2,000 people. I lived in a village that was part of Newcastle, a village named Sheepscott, about five miles outside the center of town. As you took the exit off of Route 1 into Damariscotta, what greeted you was a reaching of church spires. Out of the deep green leaves came announcement after announcement that a church was here.
At my church, a relatively small Episcopal one hidden up a quiet lane, we drank wine. Up at the top of the hill, boasting its pride of place in town was the Baptist church. No one that I grew up with who went there drank wine, neither in church nor at home. And they weren’t supposed to drink at dances, either.
Then there were those people who talked about handling snakes. There was the boisterous choir mistress of the Unitarian church who at public assemblies tried to train the village people in the “right” way to do things, even though it was obvious that everyone had their own way of doing things.
In my small town that was the most obvious thing to me: in terms of God, everyone had their own way of doing things. And quite often these different ways of doing things glared at each other with disapproval and downright harsh judgment.
So my free-time question always was, if this is God, how can that be God?
And the answer always was the same, for this person this is God, for that person that is God.
Then how can anything be right, if everything is right?
It’s not as simple as all that. It’s not a matter of right and wrong. It’s a matter of growth. People have what they need to grow toward God.
Years later, I received the lesson of the rose:
The lesson of the rose: like the sun on a delicate flower, our souls are only given as much of God as we can handle. As our souls are opened, they can know the full light of God.
Ultimately, having lived on the coast of Maine during the summer, my ultimate question on the subject was, if everything is God, how can a mosquito be God?
The answer: if you can hear the voice of God in the hum of a mosquito, you can hear it anywhere.
Not an easy lesson for me, because the bottom line for me was, I don’t WANT to hear the voice of God in the buzz of a mosquito.
Gratitude is the acknowledgement that all around us, even that which we cannot abide and judge harshly is God. If we don’t accept this world as God’s creation, then all we are left with is absolute existential loneliness.
Gratitude is the connecting of the seen with the unseen.
Most of what keeps people away from God is their fear of the unseen. What is out there exactly? This concern is so deep we reason that it is better for us to turn our backs completely on God than to chance falling into a chasm filled with fire and goblins that go bump in the night.
Atheism, radical humanism, youthful disrespect, all are methods of declaring that it is better to be safe than sorry. If we can create a no-God universe, then we have no God to fear. No rules to follow. No judgment to face. We are free.
The discipline of gratitude is a means of staying connected with both that which can be seen, and that which cannot be seen. It is also the means of our continued spiritual growth. Each and every time we say, thank you, we reaffirm our relationship with God and deepen our acceptance and understanding of God.
Gratitude is the ultimate acknowledgement of divinity. Some might even call it, goodness.
Gratitude is a restoration of order.
I couldn’t count the times that I have stood in front of a classroom and wanted to say, Sit down and shut up. In fact, in my heart, that became such a favored way of reacting to certain situations that I came to think that contemplative prayer was just that — a way for us to stop, sit down, and shut up.
I used to post a list of rules on my wall: write only on one side of a piece of paper, use only blue or black ink, any inclusion of a scatological term will result in an automatic, F, that sort of thing.
I would have liked to have posted another list: those things that can be said in this classroom:
- A response to a question
- A question that pertains to the subject under discussion
- An amusing anecdote that pertains to the subject under discussion
- Thank you
- If none of the above is available, then silence will do
Everyone can dream.
But in reality, gratitude is the gateway to transcendence. Through it, we can move away from and break up our obsessive attachments, our two-eyed focus on ourselves. We can give up defining God on our own terms, limiting him to the confines of our own imaginations.
Through gratitude, we can learn true humility. We can learn to mean, not my way, but yours.
And, most importantly, through gratitude we can start a conversation and begin to silence all the shouting that happens around us.
Could it be that the mystical gratefulness in the depth of every human heart sings with a “still, small voice,” and is easily drowned out by the noise we endure and the noise we make?
— Brother David Steindl-Rast
In a 2003 study entitled Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84: 377-389), two scientists had some of the participants of the study write a journal entry every night. The instructions for the journal entry are as follows:
We want to focus for a moment on benefits or gifts that you have received in your life. These gifts could be simple everyday pleasures, people in your life, personal strengths or talents, moments of natural beauty, or gestures of kindness from others. We might not normally think about these things as gifts, but that is how we want you to think about them. Take a moment to really savor or relish these gifts, think about their value, and then write them down every night before going to sleep.
The facts of the study were that those who completed the above assignment received immeasurable blessings in their lives.