Robes of Gratitude (October 2002)

October 2002
Robes of Gratitude ©

In accomplishing a task, we are generally challenged not only to choose the right course of action, but also to conduct ourselves in a suitable manner …to do the right thing right.

So it is with moral decisions. We are first invited to behave in ways that benefit the community as a whole. We are then invited to breathe life into that choice with an attitude that reveals the sacredness of our actions.

Plainly, this means that if we are to perform charitable works, we must do so in a spirit of authentic love. If we are to ask for forgiveness, we must do so with a sense of genuine remorse. And if we are to celebrate our faith, we must do so with the gratitude that acknowledges that faith is the ultimate gift of love.

It is this latter example that I would like to emphasize in this reflection.

There is a story found in Matthew 22 about people who are invited to a wedding celebration. Most initially refuse to attend; but they are then subsequently entreated or coerced to reconsider.

Our attention soon focuses on one particular guest who was not wearing a wedding robe. We are told that the king who was hosting the wedding banquet for his son responded to this affront by ordering his attendants to bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

At first blush, the king appears to our sensibility as irritable and snobbish, if not downright cruel and unforgiving. Ours is an era of casual dress and manner. We might think the guest cool or boorish but would never condemn him in so dismissive a fashion …or so we tell ourselves.

In truth, there are many ways of condemning and dismissing: some subtler than others. We should therefore not be too quick to congratulate ourselves for being merciful and inclusive.

But this is not the point of the story. Rather, the story is meant to remind us that many are called but few respond …and of those who do respond, even fewer do so in a suitable manner. Does this mean that the invitation is insincere or that the king who invites us is arrogant and impossible to please? Not at all.

The king in question is God, who so loves us that he bids us to attend the wedding banquet of his own son. He is so eager for us to share in this joy that he calls us many times and in many ways …through the prophets, the evangelists, the saints and the church.

If the guest has been evicted from the festivities …left to suffer in the darkness that reigns where the Son is not present …if the guest in this story weeps and gnashes his teeth, it is because of his own failure to prepare his heart for receiving this joy.

After all, even as he chastises the guest, the king addresses him as friend. Even to the last, he shows his love. Yes, it is the guest who condemns himself to the outer darkness by donning an attitude that is contrary to the spirit of the festivities.

The ideal attitude can be characterized in many ways. I chose to call it gratitude …for the hospitality of the host of hosts …for the love that marks the celebratory occasion itself …and for the privilege of being called friend.

Wearing the wedding robe in Matthew’s account indeed signifies a heart open to the true meaning of the feast. It is a celebration, an occasion of joy, and of majesty. It is, quite simply, a momentous occasion. But this celebration is unique: it is the explicit celebration of the son’s mystical marriage to humanity, arranged by the great king to rescue his people from the anguish that brutalizes his beloved subjects.

This is not some random party to which the guest goes simply to get his fill of shallow pleasures. It is a marvellous invitation to a more mature consciousness of the reality of being —an invitation to become one in faith with the groom …as we might say, to put on Christ.

If the guest will not clothe himself in gratitude for this occasion, is he not rejecting true joy and condemning himself to despair?

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On a very practical level, God’s invitation to the wedding banquet is a public invitation to solidarity in Christ with the people of God. But it is also something more: a personal invitation to communion with the Lord through prayer.

Prayer is a state that cannot be entered into without sincerity …and arguably without gratitude. I invite you to reflect on these words by Brother David Steindl-Rast, taken from his book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer:

“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.”

The Benedictine author is not dismissive of prayers …in fact, he calls them the poetry of prayer. But he wishes to highlight the connection …the act of communicating authentically from the heart …in a spirit of genuine gratefulness.

I think he would agree, therefore, that true gratefulness is a most suitable robe to wear to this mystical banquet.

Elsewhere he adds: “This 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.”

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Isaiah, one of the king’s emissaries, sent even before the birth of his son, 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. Full participation requires a heart filled with gladness and rejoicing

Participation means total participation. We do not attend a banquet only to eat the dessert or to dance with those who dress fashionably. Indeed, we are expected to bring a wedding gift …no less than our fully committed selves. We are invited both to enjoy, and to be fully present, fully committed 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 giving in to this temptation means we can miss an extraordinary occasion of grace — the grace with which gratitude transforms what displeases us into a blessing upon us. Gratitude is the catalyst. .

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In October, we celebrate a national holiday of Thanksgiving. Reasons for thanksgiving are countless. A grateful heart understands this. It cannot count each breath we take, each ray of sun that warms and enlightens us, each beat of a child’s heart or each tear of a happy bride. It cannot fathom the depth of God’s love …constantly expressed in obvious, random or inconspicuous ways.

Scripture tells us: Give thanks to the Lord for he is good …Bless the Lord …Praise him with lute and harp.

Steindl-Rast links these: “Thanksgiving, blessing, praise, all three belong to gratefulness. Each has its shortcomings. Praise may sound too formal for everyday living. Many may find the sound of blessing too churchly to feel at ease. Thanksgiving, in turn, tends to suggest a polite convention rather than the universal attitude toward life which we mean here. But each of the three terms adds to gratefulness an aspect that the other two fail to emphasize. Praise stresses a value-response. Blessing resonates with religious undertones. Thanksgiving implies deep personal engagement. All three together make gratefulness full.

“Suddenly everything is simple. Gratefulness says it all. And gratefulness is something all of us know from experience. Can the spiritual life be that simple? Yes, what we secretly hoped is true: it is all that simple. It is this very simplicity, in fact, that we find most difficult(…)What brings fulfillment is gratefulness, the simple response of our heart to this given life in all its fullness.”