Thursday, 22 September 2011

"We are not a glum lot", but are we really grateful

A grandmother was walking with her 5 year old grandson on the beach, when suddenly a rogue wave came and grabbed him and carried him out to sea. She looked up to the sky, held out her fist and cried "God, this is unacceptable, unbearable. You cannot take an innocent child" and just as the words came out of her mouth, another rogue wave came and deposited the child smiling back at her feet. She then picked up the child in her arms, looked up to sky and said, "This child had a hat!"

We really are a funny lot. We focus and complain about the things we don't have or the things that we once had and have now lost. So much so that we fail to see the very fruits that we are surrounded by. We are an ungrateful lot. We can be a real glum lot.

Most of us are ungrateful; most of us practice being ungrateful. It's almost become a religious ritual in itself. We moan and complain about our imperfect jobs, our imperfect bodies, our imperfect family, our imperfect relationships, our imperfect religious communities, our imperfect football teams, our imperfect life, our imperfect world, even our imperfect God who doesn't give us exactly what we want when we want it.

This joylessness can become habitual and all consuming and pretty soon life can look pretty bleak and empty. Is it any wonder that depression, mental illness and addiction are on the increase? If this is the view that we have of the world in which we live. We can be a glum lot. The problem with living an ungrateful life is that it eats away at everything that has any meaning. Until in the end life has no meaning.

Can you ever imagine wanting to spend time with or be near a person who has no sense of gratitude for life as a gift, a precious gift; the kind of person who only sees life purely as his or her personal entitlement that must be grabbed at and clung to.

The classic example of this is the Dickens character Ebeneezer Scrooge. The miserly, clench buttocked, tight-fisted, cold-hearted, humourless man, who had no sense of gratitude. He was a man that no one wanted to be around. He was not born that way and had not always lived that way, but had over the years sunk further into self protection.

I've been there I was one of life's great moaners. As they say round Manchester way I was a 'proper mard arse'. And as I know only too well “nobody likes a winer”. I certainly didn't like me and I tried really hard to make others not like me too. That is when I wasn't trying to get them to feel sorry for me. Today I am grateful for the life I have and the life I'm living. My religion if you like has become one of gratitude, radical gratitude.

The American Unitarian Universalist minister Galen Guengerich (what a great name) proposes that gratitude ought to be the central pillar of my Unitarian faith.

He states

"Unless our faith is mere intellectual affectation … the
defining element of our faith must be a daily practice of some kind. What
kind of practice? For Jews, the defining discipline is obedience: To be a
faithful Jew is to obey the commands of God. For Christians, the defining
discipline is love: To be a faithful Christian is to love God and to love your
neighbour as yourself. For Muslims, the defining discipline is submission: To
be a faithful Muslim is to submit to the will of Allah.

And what of us? What should be our defining religious discipline? While
obedience, love, and even submission each play a vital role in the life of faith,
my current conviction is that our defining discipline should be gratitude.
Gratitude! Gratitude as the Unitarian core spiritual practice!

Why gratitude? Two dimensions of gratitude make it fitting as our defining
religious practice. One has to do with a discipline of gratitude, and the other
has to do with an ethic of gratitude. The discipline of gratitude reminds us
how utterly dependent we are on the people and world around us for
everything that matters. From this, flows an ethic of gratitude that obligates
us to create a future that justifies an increasing sense of gratitude from the
human family as a whole. The ethic of gratitude demands that we nurture the
world that nurtures us in return."

I think that he makes a good point. This discipline and ethic of gratitude offers an alternative to the rugged individualism of our post modern age. For an awful lot of folk, so called, spirituality has become all about feeling good about me right now and not about connection and interconnectedness. This self-centred spirituality only feeds our loneliness and disconnection. So not only is it deeply ego-centric it simply does not work. By living this way and trying to grab and cling to what see as 'ours' the whole of life becomes devoid of meaning unless we personally possess it. Therefore if we lose even a little bit of whatever it is that gives our life meaning and value our whole focus will be purely on that little bit that we have lost and not the fruits we are surrounded by.

...just like the old lady, the child and the hat...

Maybe Galen is right; maybe the purpose of the religious way of life is to activate that sense of gratitude within us. The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart stated that “if the only prayer you said the whole of your life was "thank you", that would suffice.”

"Thank you" is the greatest prayer of them all. I have a friend who recites that prayer with every breath when he goes swimming. This man has known the pain that life can bring; he's also been responsible for creating plenty of it himself. He has changed though and as a result is grateful for the fact that he can draw breath. He says thank you for every single breath.

...that takes my breath away...

So how do we Foster gratitude? People like Galen advocate spiritual practices and I'm sure that they help. In my nightly prayers, for part of the time, I focus on the gifts that I have experienced that day. I also take time to look at the beauty that I'm surrounded by, whether it's the bustling crowds in town or the beauty of nature. Beauty in ordinary everyday life comes in many guises. For me there is nothing more magical than the smile on a child's face or their infectious laughter. I adore it when I can see the world through the eyes of a child, I love that sense of awe and wonder.

That said I'm not convinced that this is enough. Religious faith, for me, is all about action and this action is frequently ignited by life's trials. These events can often be painful and almost utterly destructive. In my experience radical gratitude emerges from what has been called the "dark night of the soul". I only began to experience gratitude for the fact I could draw breath, when I came out of my own self created hole. I could not focus on what was beautiful and could only see what I had lost.

The Holocaust survivor Eli Weisel believed that "gratitude emerges from the kingdom of the night". Gratitude is not the result of good fortune, happiness or great success. It is instead a response to life itself. Maybe gratitude reaches us when we appear to be utterly unreachable.

Psalm 139 boldly claims that we can never exile ourselves from the range and reach of love.

"Thou are acquainted with all my ways... Where can I flee from your presence? If I make my bed in hell, thou art there... even the night shall provide light. The darkness and the light are both alike to Thee."

The power of goodness is so enormous that it can soften even the hardest of hearts, as it did for Mr Scrooge.
Gratitude is not about the things we do or do not receive; it is about being in relationship. It is about being in relationship with ourselves, the life we have, the people we share it with, the planet we inhabit and the universe we are a small but vital part of. It is also about being in relationship with whatever we understand is at the core of this. For me this is God, others understand this differently or give it another name. What we name it is almost irrelevant. What is really important is how we respond to this mystery that is life. All of us can pray for a grateful heart, for the gift that is life itself and for the opportunities that life offers to us. And if we fall short what does it matter.

The truth is that no matter how far we wander, or how often we stumble, love can find and bless us, if we are open enough to receive it.

Today I am practising gratitude by giving myself wholeheartedly to life.

We are all capable of that...

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