March 2008

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

In my February reflection, I wrote of the path to joy and proposed that it comprises three sections, simplicity being the first. Our destination is different from what the world understands joy to be. True joy is a state of grace that we can most efficaciously possess with attitudes advocated in Christian tradition.

How can we recognize true simplicity? Are not some people who avoid complexity really depressed or avoiding responsibility? Depression and avoidance rarely lead to joy. On the other hand, true simplicity promotes consciousness, fosters growth in areas vital to the person’s purpose, giftedness and mission, and—as we will see over the course of the next few reflections—puts us on the path to joy. True simplicity opens onto recognition that we have more than we need, that we can—with the help of God and others—achieve all that is important to our well-being and happiness. Once our expectations become grounded in reality and our needs are differentiated from the endless and insatiable wants that advertising thrusts upon us, we become aware of our abundance and are grateful for it. In other words, gratitude is the mark of the simple life.

Gratitude, therefore, is the second section of the path of joy, which I will address in this month’s reflection. It is the heart of prayer (Cf. David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer). As we express gratitude, we become more aware of it; and the greater our awareness, the greater our need to express it. What we enter is a spiralling ascent from the gift to the giver. Prayer leads gratefully to the provider and engages in meaningful communion and absorption into the life-giving dynamic of a triune God.

Gratitude comes in many sizes. We can have an experience of gratitude, such as a common but sincere “thank you” for a favour. At the other end of the spectrum, we can live in a state of gratitude, genuine love for all givers, especially God. So, gratitude can be grown, just as simplicity can. It is a muscle that expands with use. Gratitude grows where there is trust, where there is humility and where there is love. To become more thankful, we must deny fear and assume a proper relationship to others that accepts with equanimity both giftedness and woundedness. We must nurture hope. Hope and gratitude operate in a symbiosis; they depend on one another. Hope is the confidence that we have in an unknown future. Gratitude is our awareness and appropriation of that hope.

May God, the source of hope, fill you with all joy and peace by means of your faith in him, so that your hope will continue to grow by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15: 13) With joy, give thanks to the Father who had made you fit to have your share of what God has reserved for his people in the kingdom of light. (Col. 1: 12)

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There is a story in Matthew’s Gospel about people who are invited to a wedding celebration. Most people initially refuse to attend; but they are subsequently entreated to reconsider. On an allegorical level, the invitation to the wedding banquet is a public invitation to solidarity in Christ the groom with the people of God. But it is also something more; it is a personal invitation to communion with the Lord through prayer. Often our reaction to the “obligation” to pray is negative. But God persists because he knows that our failure to make an effort to enter into dialogue with him will harm us by depriving us of the spiritual nourishment that is vital to our well-being.

Steindl-Rast puts it this way: “Gratefulness is one way of experiencing the life of the Triune God within us. This life springs forth from the Father, the fountain and wellspring of divinity, the ultimate Giver. The total self-gift of the Father is the Son. The Son receives everything from the Father and becomes the turning point in this divine tide of giving. For in the Holy Spirit the Son returns the Father’s ultimate giving as ultimate thanksgiving. The Triune God is Giver, Gift, and Thanksgiving. This movement from the Father through the Son in the Spirit back to its Sources is what St. Gregory of Nyssa called ‘the Round Dance of the Blessed Trinity’. This is one way God prays: by dancing. It is one great celebration of belonging by giving and thanksgiving. We can begin to join that dance in our heart right now through gratefulness.”

Isaiah, one of God’s emissaries sent long before the birth of Jesus in anticipation of the banquet to come, counselled “Let us be glad and rejoice.” In other words, Isaiah tells us that mere acceptance of the invitation is not enough. Participation requires a heart filled with gladness and rejoicing. Participation means total participation. We do not attend a banquet only to eat the salad or to dance with those who dress fashionably. Our hosts expect us to participate fully in body, mind and spirit. Moreover, we are expected to bring a gift, which is a symbol of our fully engaged selves. We are invited both to enjoy and to contribute to the enjoyment of others. Receiving and giving are the rhythm and beat of the sacred dance.

It is normal that we should want to be selective about what makes us grateful. It is no less normal for us to be inclined to hold a sour attitude toward the things that give us little pleasure. But each time that we give in to this temptation, we miss an extraordinary occasion of grace—the grace with which gratitude transforms what displeases us into a blessing. Gratitude is the catalyst.

The watershed moment in the conversion of Saint Francis occurred when he kissed a leper. At the end of his life, he recalled with gratitude this pivotal moment and made it the key reference in his spiritual Testament. These are the very first verses: “This is how the Lord gave me, brother Francis, the power to do penance. When I was in sin the sight of lepers was too bitter for me. And the Lord himself led me among them, and I pitied and helped them. And when I left them I discovered that what had seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness in my soul and body. And shortly afterward I rose and left the world.” A daring act of fearless simplicity led to gratitude and, ultimately, to joy.

Saint Francis, a man of simplicity and prayer, was immensely grateful for all that he had. This is perhaps best characterized by his profound joy in greeting creation as the expression of God’s infinite and unconditional love for every being: “Praise be to you, my Lord, with all your creatures. Chief of all is Sir Brother Sun, who is our day; through whom you give light. Beautiful is he, radiant, with great splendour. He is a true revealer of You, Most High. Praise be to You, my Lord, for Sister Moon and for the stars. In heaven you have formed them, bright, precious and fair.” These effusive verses are charged with such gratitude that a mere thank you cannot suffice. Simplicity, gratitude, prayer and joy meld into one.

Prayer is an attitude of the heart that can transform every activity. We cannot say prayers at all times. But we ought to ‘pray without ceasing’. That means we ought to keep our heart open for the meaning of life. Gratefulness does this, moment by moment. Gratefulness is, therefore, prayerfulness. Moments in which we drink deeply from the source of meaning are moments of prayer, whether we call them so or not. There is no human heart that does not pray, at least in deep dreams that nourish life with meaning. What matters is prayer, not prayers. (Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer)

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Buddhist tradition places a high value on the necessity of gratitude. Indeed, it is regarded as an obligation. But while some people may view a debt of gratitude as a burdensome obligation, Buddhism teaches that the real pressure which weakens society is ingratitude. There is no one who does not owe a debt of gratitude to others. In a very real way, therefore, gratitude may be seen as consciousness of our lives as being supported by others. Christians would add the ultimate Other, God. Buddhists owe a debt of gratitude to all living beings as well as to the Buddha, the Buddhist teaching and the Buddhist community. (Cf. Shin Yatomu, Buddhist Study) Could Christians say less of our debt to God, to his Word and Holy Spirit?

Like Christianity, Buddhism invites adherents to develop a perspective and capacity to see even hardship in a positive light by giving it meaning. We can experience a sense of gratitude for something beyond what we want or expect. Everything—most particularly existence itself—is a gift.

For almost 20 years now, I have been involved in ministering to the bereaved. As my knowledge and experiences grow, I continue to marvel at how God—with our collaboration—turns darkness into light or, at the very least, turns our attention to Light that cannot be diminished by the darkness. Evidently, there is grace in all circumstances. Hopefulness is the key to seeing it, appreciating it and rejoicing in it. Many people whom I’ve accompanied have been liberated by new insights gained in the midst of tragedy. Many have even come to gain a new appreciation of God’s tenderness and benevolent action, because they have been transformed by hope strengthened by faith. Often, we hear the expression, “Stars are only visible in the night.”

Awareness of God’s mercy, forgiveness and boundless generosity is the appropriation of joy. As simplicity reminds us that our needs are no where as intricate and inaccessible as the spider-web of false desires that often lure us into stressful habits, we come to find consolation in truth, trust and thanksgiving.

Enough is a feast. (A Buddhist proverb)

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May the Lord of all good give you peace. May trust in him lead you to simplicity and gratitude. May consciousness of ordinary wonders and God’s extraordinary love give you joy.

Fraternally,

richard

crib and cross Franciscan Ministries