Brother David Steindl-Rast has contended in his writings that gratitude is foundational to a healthy spiritual life. If that is true, and I believe it is, then how might we expand our capacity for gratitude?
Perhaps some reflections drawn from the story of Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 33:12-23 can lead us along a path to gratitude. Moses says,
“If your presence will not go with us, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
The sense here is that Moses is requesting some sort of visible presence – like the pillar of fire and cloud of smoke that accompanied Israel in the wilderness. For in this way, Moses says, we will be distinct from all other peoples.
I read this as an example of first-level spirituality, which is a necessary part of our spiritual development and growth. We all need to feel special. One of the joys of being a grandparent is that we get to do this for our grandchildren over and over again and then leave it to their parents to smooth out their rough edges, reminding them that they are special – yes, but not that special.
My youngest granddaughter, Addie, is two-and-a-half and loves to hear stories about herself. When she was one-and-a-half we took her and her sister, Sophie, who was three swimming. Melissa, my wife, had to take Sophie to the restroom, so Addie was left with me. Well, she didn’t like being left with me, she wanted her Nan and started to cry. Do you know how I got her to stop crying? I held her close, which she at first resisted, and then I began telling her how special she was. I told her the story of the day she was born and how excited we were, and then I told her stories of some of the experiences we have shared together in her brief time in the world. Soon she calmed down and had her arm around my neck as she listened to me tell her how special and loved she was.
All of us need to hear that we are loved. All of us need to feel special. It’s part of a soul’s healthy development. But there comes a time when we need to move to the next level of spirituality. We need to feel distinct, special, blessed, but . . . there comes a time when we must realize that we are all in this together, that we are all loved by our Abba, our Compassionate heavenly Father, Mother, Friend and Liberator. We (as individuals and communities of faith) are parts of a greater whole and participants in a larger story.
According to the Abrahamic tradition, God called out a people, entered into covenant with that people, so that through that people all people/nations would be blessed. I believe that part of our calling as the chosen people of God is to spread a message of chosenness to everyone we can, so others will know that they are chosen too. Jesus made it quite clear that we are to share this message while serving our sisters and brothers as equals. Unfortunately, the missionary activity of the Western church has too often been conducted from a place of superiority, rather than solidarity and unity.
Samir Selmanovic, in his book It’s Really All About God, tells about an experience he had on the morning of September 11, 2002. One of the Christian family radio networks had lined him up for an interview. He was mentally prepared to tell about the many ways he and his faith community had learned to love the city and its people in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks over the previous twelve months.
But while he was waiting to go on the air, he overheard the two co-hosts boasting about Christianity, literally patronizing the world. He suddenly found himself disoriented by what he heard, and realized that he was not ready for the interview at all. He had to quickly rethink what he was going to say, because he knew what they were going to ask. And it came right on schedule: “Pastor, tell us, don’t you find people in New York more ready to receive the gospel after the tragedy? Aren’t they more receptive than ever to the message? Can we take this city for Jesus?”
Selmanovic paused and said,
“No. New York is a great opportunity for us Christians to learn. Most of the people here feel that to see the world our way would be a step backward morally. They see Christians as people not dedicated to following Jesus on earth, but obsessed with their religion. They see us as people who are really not interested in the sufferings on earth like Jesus was but driven with the need to increase the number of those worshiping this Grand Jesus in heaven. They wonder why, of all people, we are the first to rush to solve the world’s problems with weapons instead of patience and humility. I learned that it is we who need to be converted after September 11 to the ways of Jesus.”
The radio personalities didn’t ask for clarification. They quickly changed the subject and cut the interview short, not even halfway through the time allotted. In reflecting on his experience Selmanovic says,
“I realized that it is our Christian superiority complex that makes us an inferior force in making the world a better place.”
First-level spirituality claims God’s love for one’s self and one’s community, but second-level spirituality realizes that everyone else is loved too, and we are responsible for sharing that love and working for the common good. First-level spirituality can become toxic and even deadly if we never expand beyond our own belief and belonging systems to embrace others as God’s daughters and sons. Dualistic, “us” versus “them” thinking has wrought enormous damage in the world.
In Exodus 33 Moses prays, “Show me your ways, so that I may know you . . . Show me your glory.” In response God says,
“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’. . . . But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live. . . . See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
Seeing the backside of God may be a way of talking about the glory (presence, reality) of God in the visible, material, physical, tangible world. The great perennial truth that the Christian religion has made visible on the stage of human history is the truth of incarnation, which really began with the Big Bang when time and space and matter first erupted into the making a new universe. God engaged a creative process that in time brought forth life and then in “the fullness of time” became particularized (for Christians at least) in the person of Jesus, the Christ.
I’m convinced that God is incarnational. God is hidden in the visible world. Matter has always been the hiding place for Spirit. God resides in the depths of things, which is why God resides in the depths of our souls.
Paul, the mystic, perceived this when he said, “You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Or when he said, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The true Self is actually God, who we know as the Christ, living in us and through us. Our false self is what we are when our ego is in control.
Sometimes we use religion (our scriptures and traditions) to avoid any real God encounter in the depths of the soul. A common temptation for all of us is to use a belief system or a belonging system to substitute for any personal or life-changing experience of the Divine. It is easy for us to make belonging to the right group, believing the right things, or practicing the right rituals a substitute for genuine God encounter. Authentic God encounter always leads us into the depths of our souls to face our inconsistencies and contradictions in order to change, to grow, to become more loving and compassionate persons and communities.
If God is incarnational, if God hides in the material world, then all the world is God’s temple, and the world is a sacred place. We can find God everywhere and anywhere. Every event, experience, conversation, every place where we are present God is present and presents us with a potential God experience/encounter. Third-level spirituality is the capacity to see, sense, and experience God anytime, anyplace because we know that God is present in all of it.
This is true of terrible and tragic situations too. In the tsunami and earthquake, the hurricane and tornado, where acts of violence and terror are performed, where persons are wounded and killed, in the children’s ward where kids are dying with cancer, in one’s darkest moments – God is there. God, of course, is not responsible for any of these things, but God is there. God is suffering and hurting and dying too.
And on the flip side, God is on the beach where waves are rolling in and the evening sun is casting an orange haze over the water. At the birth of your child or grandchild, or when your daughter or granddaughter reaches up and squeezes your neck as hard as she can and tells you that she loves you and you think it just can’t get any better than this – God is there. In the best of times and worst of times God is there. God is at one with the world and at one with each of God’s children, whether we know it or not.
God’s presence in all of it is grace. The Exodus text calls this “goodness” – “I will make all my goodness pass before you” God says to Moses. This goodness is passing before us every day – in the sunshine and rain, in the air we breathe, in the touch of our lover’s hand, in a thousand ways. God’s goodness, God’s grace is not an add-on, not something doled out on the churched or religious, or a prize won for believing or doing the right things. God’s goodness is what sustains and is inherent in all life.
I believe that a healthy, holistic, and transformative spirituality will move us along a path where we first recognize that we are loved with an eternal love, that God holds us close and never lets go, for we are that special. But rather than claiming this all for ourselves (which leads to an unhealthy, toxic kind of spirituality), we realize that God loves all God’s children this way. We then sense a connection to all our sisters and brothers and are compelled to work for the common good. As we grow in love, the blinders come off, and we are able to see God’s goodness and grace everywhere. As we drink from this reservoir of boundless grace gratitude fills our hearts and overflows into all the outlets and places where we live our lives.
Giver of all good gifts, you give us space and time
This new day, in this place, is your gift.
Make me live gratefully.
This day is opportunity
To receive your blessing in a thousand forms
And to bless.
To listen to your word in all that I hear,
And to respond in obedience of heart.
To drink deeply from your life,
And to make others come alive,
By radiant smile, by cheerful answer,
And by a secret blessing.