Rounding out this series on gratitude, I would like to finish with my roots, Christianity. Thanksgiving through Christmas are my favorite time to preach because of the time I could spend teaching about gratitude. I feel that our churches need to spend more time talking about the need to offer love and gratitude rather than the focus on giving gifts and consuming food and experiences. I am reminded of Thomas Merton’s 4th and Walnut mystical experience: (from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander):
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
When you study gratitude deeply from the Jewish and Islamic traditions because they share a common ancestry, there is not much difference with Christianity. What I have found is that Islam and Judaism tend to be more community centered whereas Christianity tends to be more self-centered. I am grateful for what God has given me vs. We are grateful for what God has given us.
In an article looking at the uniqueness of Christian gratitude, Dunnington looks at an anthology of early Christian writers who point to what this quality looks like. Pointing to Jonathon Edwards, you get confirmation of the self-centered or personal relationship with gratitude. Here, we see in Edwards the exclusive relationship between ourselves and God, and this belief that God does things for us, say a cooperative relationship between ourselves and God. “For Edwards, then Christian gratitude is distinctive because it is motivated by love for God rather than love for self” (Dunnington, 2022). I would argue that we need both love for ourselves and love for God to make this work. Of course, it is Edwards theological stance that comes through and makes sense for his faith orientation.
Reflecting on Kierkegarrd, Dunnington offers:
Kierkegaard “is saying that it’s fine to thank God for these mundane blessings, as long as one’s thanks are firmly subject to a proviso: were these blessings taken from me, my gratitude to you, O God, would continue unabated—not unchanged, perhaps, but unabated … That is, thanks for the God-relationship is always proper, takes precedence over thanks for the blessings of this life, and persists through the thick and the thin of the latter blessings” Roberts, R. C. (2014). Cosmic gratitude.
Leaning on Bonhoeffer, Dunnington points out gratitude must be learned and practiced. It is practice then that I want to focus on in the remaining lines of this post.
Gratitude as a Practice
As a practice, Gratitude is a way of life. Gratitude is a way of being present in each moment and aware of the good gifts and sometimes the bad gifts you have been given. I was talking about joy and suffering the other day and while bad things kinda suck sometimes, regardless of the outcome, there can be growth. In psychology, we call this post traumatic growth. Mr. Rogers simply asks us to look for the helpers. To be grateful is to recognize the complex web of relationships that link us to the providence of the divine and our connection to all of creation. We truly are all one and we are given a free, one-time gift called life. Regardless of how we came into existence and the circumstances we arrived in, we are all blessed with the presence of life.
“Thank you” is such a simple phrase, though one that is flippantly thrown around like the phrase, “I love you”. When used mindfully, gratitude enhances our satisfaction with those blissful moments of life or even the mundane. We can be just as thankful for the bright sunny morning as we can be sitting on our couch looking at the rain. Once we embrace our interconnectedness with all creation, we begin to see the oneness and our connection with the web of relationships noted earlier. Practicing gratitude counters our feelings of entitlement and our feelings of greed.
Many years ago, when I was thinking of becoming a Catholic monk, I learned that there were several hundred types of bows a Catholic could use in worship and other applications. In the East, there is one in particular that I have adopted as my daily practice, a bow of compassion.
Bowing in Compassion, Gassho
In Buddhism, bowing to one another in mutual greeting is considered a true form of thanksgiving. If done enough, it will soften the “rigid outlines of a self-absorbed ego softened. Feelings of humility, respect, and gratitude emerge. In this lowering of the mast of ego it is impossible to have an egotistical thought or to speak an unkind word.” (Kapleau)
Kapleau goes on to offer that for Buddhist, “Thanksgiving is a deep sentiment and is not celebrated one day a year. For the spiritual-minded person, it is a way of life, embracing every day, every hour, every minute, a way of living that is truly life-affirming, filled with thanks for everything.”
For me, this practice of bowing has brought me deep closeness to those around me and has helped me cultivate a love an appreciation of those in my space in a way that mimics Merton’s affirmations mentioned earlier in this post.
Dunnington, K. (2022). The Distinctiveness of Christian Gratitude: A Theological Survey. Religions, 13(10), 889. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/rel13100889
Kapleau, P. (n.d.). A Bow or a Gassho. Spirituality and Practice. Retrieved November 24, 2023, from https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/practices/practices/view/28055/a-bow-or-a-gassho