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 Gratitude

     The passages below on gratitude are taken from Robert A. Jonas’ book, ”Henri Nouwen” published in 1998, on Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s writings.

 

1.Gratitude as a discipline (pg 69)

     In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realise that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.

     Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticised, even when my heart still responds in bitterness. I can choose to speak about goodness and beauty, even when my inner eye still looks for someone to accuse or something to call ugly. I can choose to listen to the voices that forgive and to look at the faces that smile, even while I still hear words of revenge and see grimaces of hatred.

     There is always the choice between resentment and gratitude because God has appeared in my darkness, urged me to come home, and declared in a voice filled with affection: “You are with Me always, and all I have is yours.” Indeed, I can choose to dwell in the darkness in which I stand, point to those who are seemingly better off than I, lament about the many misfortunes that have plagued me in the past, and thereby wrap myself up in my resentment. But I don’t have to do this. There is the option to look into the eyes of the One who came out to search for me and see therein that all I am and all I have is pure gift calling for gratitude.

     The choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort. But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until finally, even the most normal, obvious, and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace. There is an Estonian proverb that says: “Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.” Acts of gratitude make one grateful because, step by step, they reveal that all is grace. (The return of the Prodigal Son, 85)

 

2.Fecundity (Fruitfulness) (pg 68)

     Gratitude flows from the recognition that all that is, is a divine gift born of love and freely given to us so that we may offer thanks and share it with others.

     The more we touch the intimate love of God which creates, sustains, and guides us, the more we recognise the multitude of fruits that come forth from that love. They are fruits of the Spirit, such as joy, peace, kindness, goodness, and gentleness. When we encounter any of these fruits, we always experience them as gifts.

     When, for instance, we enjoy a good atmosphere in the family, a peaceful mood among friends, or a spirit of co-operation and mutual support in the community, we intuitively know that we did not produce it. It cannot be made, imitated, or exported. To people who are jealous and who would like to have our joy and peace, we cannot give a formula to produce it or a method to acquire it. It is always perceived as a gift, to which the only appropriate response is gratitude.

     Every time we experience real goodness or gentleness we know it is a gift. If we say: “Well, she gets paid to be nice to us,” or “He only says such friendly things because he wants something from us,” we can no longer receive that goodness as a gift. We grow from receiving and giving gifts.

     Life loses its dynamism and exuberance when everything that happens to us is viewed as a predictable result of predictable actions. It degenerates into commerce, a continuous buying and selling of goods, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual goods. Without a spirit of gratitude, life flattens out and becomes dull and boring. But when we continue to be surprised by new manifestations of life and continue to praise and thank God and our neighbour, routine and boredom cannot take hold. Then all of life becomes a reason for saying thanks. Thus, fecundity and gratitude can never be separated. (Lifesigns 70-71)

 

3.Grateful in the Paradox (pg 49)

     Gratitude in its deepest sense means to live life as a gift to be received gratefully. But gratitude as the Gospel speaks about it embraces all of life: the good and the bad, the joyful and the painful, the holy and the not so holy. Is this possible in a society where gladness and sadness, joy and sorrow, peace and conflict, remain radically separated? Can we counter the many advertisements that tell us, “You cannot be glad when you are sad, so be happy: buy this, do that, go here, go there, and you will have a moment of happiness during which you can forget your sorrow?” Is it truly possible to embrace with gratitude all of our life and not just the good things that we like to remember?

     Jesus calls us to recognise that gladness and sadness are never separate, that joy and sorrow really belong together, and that mourning and dancing are part of the same movement. That is why Jesus calls us to be grateful for every moment that we have lived and to claim our unique journey as God’s way to mould our hearts to greater conformity with God’s own. The cross is the main symbol of our faith, and it invites us to find hope where we see pain and to reaffirm the resurrection where we see death. The call to be grateful is a call to trust that every moment of our life can be claimed as the way of the cross that leads us to new life. When the disciples were on the way to Emmaus and met Jesus, they could not believe that there was much fruit to be expected from all the suffering they had witnessed. But Jesus revealed that it was precisely because of the suffering and pain that new life was born. It is so easy for me to put the bad memories under the rug of my life and to think only about the good things that please me. By doing so, however, I prevent myself from discovering the joy beneath my sorrow, the peace hidden in the midst of my conflicts, and the strength that becomes visible in the midst of my weakness. (“All is Grace” 39-40)

 

4.All is Grace (pg 67)

     “We are really grateful for all the good things . . .We simply have to accept or try to forget the painful moments.” The attitude expressed in these words made me aware of how often we tend to divide our past into good things to remember with gratitude and painful things to accept or forget. Once we accept this division, however, we quickly develop a mentality in which we hope to collect more good memories than bad memories, more things to be grateful for than things to complain about. But this way of thinking, which at first glance seems quite natural, prevents us from truly allowing our whole past to be the source from which we live our future. Is this the gratitude to which the Gospel calls us?

     Gratitude is not a simple emotion or an obvious attitude. It is a difficult discipline to constantly reclaim my whole past as the concrete way in which God has led me to this moment and is sending me into the future. It is hard precisely because it challenges me to face the painful moments---experiences of rejection and abandonment, feelings of loss and failure---and gradually to discover in them the pruning hands of God purifying my heart for deeper love, stronger hope, and broader faith. Jesus says to His disciples that although they are as intimately related to Him as branches are to the vine, they still need to be pruned in order to bear more fruit (John 15:1-5). Pruning means cutting, reshaping, removing what diminishes vitality. . .

     Grateful people are those who can celebrate even the pains of life because they trust that when harvest time comes the fruit will show that the pruning was not punishment but purification.

     I am gradually learning that the call to gratitude asks us to say “everything is grace.” When our gratitude for the past is only partial, our hope for a new future can never be full. . .If we are to be truly ready for a new task in the service of God, truly to be sent into a new mission, our entire past, gathered into the spaciousness of a converted heart, must become the source of energy that moves us toward the future. (“All is Grace” 39-41)

 

5.Ministry as Being-With (pg 112-113)

     Two words that I think are helpful for ministry are “compassion” and “gratitude.” Ministry happens when you participate in the mystery of being-with. The whole incarnation, God-with-us, Emmanuel, is first of all being with people. Caring means “to cry out with.” Compassion literally means “to be with those who suffer.” Ministry means that we lift the incarnation---we lift the God who says, “I will be with you.” We are to be precisely where people are vulnerable, not to fix it or to change it. That is an unintended fruit of it, but that is not why we are there.

     Compassion is the priesthood of Jesus—-read the letter to the Hebrews. Since nothing human was alien to Him, He was the compassionate high priest. Jesus is first of all God-with-us. For thirty years He was just living in a small village, living the same life that we live. It was for only three years that He was preaching. So even when you look at it in a spiritual way, Jesus’ ministry wasn’t just the three years He was preaching. The mystery is that He shared our lives. God is a God-with-us. Ministry is being with the sick, the dying, being with people wherever they are, whatever their problems. We dare to be with them in their weakness and trust that if we are entering into people’s vulnerable places, we will experience immense joy. That is the mystery of ministry.

     You can’t solve the world’s problems, but you can be with people. I’ve been with two people who were dying in the last months. It wasn’t a burden---it was a great joy to have the privilege to be there when they made their passage.

     If I follow God, I pray, I say certain things, and I tell others in need that I care. But I don’t sit down beforehand and plan how to get this person from here to there. If I am not in communion with God or in communion with other people, then I become a technician who got involved, but as a technician I cannot lay down my life for my friends. My life is my joy, my peace, and my sorrow. Ministry is witness. It is nothing else but saying, “I’ve seen something, I’ve experienced something, and I am not afraid to share it with you if you ask me to.” Ministry doesn’t have that quality of compulsiveness that it has to happen right away or if I don’t say something at the right time that person will become lost. (“Parting Words” 14-15)

 

     The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Show me the Way,” published in 1992.

 

1.Thursday after Ash Wednesday (pg 15)

     A life of faith is a life of gratitude---it means a life in which I am willing to experience my complete dependence upon God and to praise and thank Him unceasingly for the gift of being. A truly eucharistic life means always saying thanks to God, always praising God, and always being more surprised by the abundance of God’s goodness and love. How can such a life not also be a joyful life? It is the truly converted life in which God has become the center of all. There gratitude is joy and joy is gratitude and everything becomes a surprising sign of God’s presence. (Translated from Nachts bricht der Tag an.  86)

 

2.Wednesday of the Second Week in Lent (pg 50)

     Joy and gratitude are the qualities of the heart by which we recognise those who are committed to a life of service in the path of Jesus Christ.. . .Wherever we see real service we also see joy, because in the midst of service a divine presence becomes visible and a gift is offered. Therefore, those who serve as followers of Jesus discover that they are receiving more than they are giving. Just as a mother does not need to be rewarded for the attention she pays to her child, because her child is her joy, so those who serve their neighbour will find their reward in the people whom they serve. The joy of those who follow their Lord on His self-emptying and humbling way shows that what they seek is not misery and pain but the God whose compassion they have felt in their own lives. Their eyes do not focus on poverty and misery, but on the face of the loving. (Compassion 32)

 

     The passages below are taken from John Garvey’s book, ”Circles of Love” published in 1988, on Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s writings.

 

1.Gratitude and Action (pg 26)

     Whether they confront evil in the world or support the good, disciplined actions are always characterised by gratitude.

     To persevere without visible success we need a spirit of gratitude. An angry action is born of the experience of being hurt; a grateful action is born of the experience of healing. Angry actions want to take; grateful actions want to share. Gratitude is the mode of action undertaken as part of the discipline of patience.

     The compassionate life is a grateful life, and actions born out of gratefulness are not compulsive but free, not sombre but joyful, not fanatical but liberating. When gratitude is the source of our actions, our giving becomes receiving, and those to whom we minister become our ministers because in the centre of our cares for others we sense a caring presence, and in the midst of our efforts we sense an encouraging support. (Compassion 126)

 

2.Joy (pg 85)

     Many people hardly believe anymore in the possibility of a truly joy-filled life. They have more or less accepted life as a prison and are grateful for every occasion that creates the illusion of the opposite: a cruise, a suspense novel, a sexual experience, or a few hours in a heightened state of consciousness. This is happiness in the house of fear, a happiness which is “made in the world” and thus is neither lasting nor deeply satisfying.

     The joy that Jesus offers His disciples is His own joy, which flows from His intimate communion with the One who sent Him. It is a joy that does not separate happy days from sad days, successful moments from moments of failure, experiences of honour from experiences of dishonour, passion from resurrection. This joy is a divine gift that does not leave us during times of illness, poverty, oppression or persecution. It is present even when the world laughs or tortures, robs or mains, fights or kills. It is truly ecstatic, always moving us away from the house of fear into the house of love, and always proclaiming that death no longer has the final say, though its noise remain loud and its devastation visible. The joy of Jesus lifts up life to be celebrated. (Lifesigns 64)

 

     The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Bread for the Journey,” published in 1997:

 

1. The Spiritual Work of Gratitude (Jan 12)

     To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives---the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections---that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for.

     Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.

 

2.Celebrating Being Alive (Feb 13)

     Birthdays are so important. On our birthdays we celebrate being alive. On our birthdays people can say to us, “Thank you for being!” Birthday presents are signs of our families and friends’ joy that we are part of their lives. Little children often look forward to their birthdays for months. Their birthdays are their big days, when they are the center of attention and all their friends come to celebrate.

     We should never forget our birthdays or the birthdays of those who are close to us. Birthdays keep us childlike. They remind us that what is important is not what we do or accomplish, not what we have or who we know, but that we are, here and now. On birthdays let us be grateful for the gift of life.

 

3.Seeing the Beauty and Goodness in Front of Us (Feb 14)

     We don’t have to go far to find the treasure we are seeking. There is beauty and goodness right where we are. And only when we can see the beauty and goodness that are close by can we recognise beauty and goodness on our travels far and wide. There are trees and flowers to enjoy, paintings and sculptures to admire; most of all there are people who smile, play, and show kindness and gentleness. They are all around us, to be recognised as free gifts to receive in gratitude.

     Our temptation is to collect all the beauty and goodness surrounding us as helpful information we can use for our projects. But then we cannot enjoy it, and we soon find that we need a vacation to restore ourselves. Let’s try to see the beauty and goodness in front of us before we go elsewhere to look for it.

 

4.A Grateful Death (Aug 28)

     When we think about death, we often think about what will happen to us after we have died. But it is more important to think about what will happen to those we leave behind. The way we die has a deep and lasting effect on those who stay alive. It will be easier for our family and friends to remember us with joy and peace if we have said a grateful good-bye than if we die with bitter and disillusioned hearts.

     The greatest gift we can offer our families and friends is the gift of gratitude. Gratitude sets them free to continue living without bitterness or self-recrimination.

 

     The passages below are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “In the House of the Lord,” published in 1986:

 

1.Handicapped people are Grateful People. (45-46)

     Handicapped people are very vulnerable. They cannot hide their weaknesses and are therefore easy victims of maltreatment and ridicule. But this same vulnerability also allows them to bear ample fruit in the lives of those who receive them. They are grateful people. They know they are dependent on others and show this dependence every moment; but their smiles, embraces, and kisses are offered as spontaneous expressions of thanks. They know that all is pure gift to be thankful for. They are people who need care. When they are locked up in custodial institutions and treated as nobodies, they withdraw and cannot bear fruit. They become overwhelmed by fears and close themselves to others. But when they are given a safe space, with truly caring people whom they can trust, they soon become generous givers who are willing to offer their whole hearts.

     Handicapped people help us see the great mystery of fecundity. They pull us out of our competitive, production-oriented lives and remind us that we too are handicapped persons in need of love and care. They tell us in many ways that we too do not need to be afraid of our handicap and that we too can bear fruit as Jesus did when He offered His broken body to His Father.

 

2.Jesus always Gave Thanks. (42)

     A second aspect of the fruitful life is gratitude. Our preoccupation with success extinguishes the spirit of gratitude. When our hearts and minds are bent on proving our value to others and competing with our rivals, it is hard to give thanks. In a society that presents independence and self-reliance as ideals, gratitude is more a sign of weakness than of strength. Gratitude presupposes a willingness to recognise our dependence on others and to receive their help and support.

     Yet as soon as we shift our attention from products to fruit we become grateful people. Jesus always gave thanks. When He stood before the opened grave of Lazarus, He thanked His Father for hearing His prayer (John 11:4). When He gathered His disciples for the last Supper, He spoke words of thanks over bread and wine. Gratitude belongs to the core of the life of Jesus and His followers.

 

3.Grateful for Life and for Death. (49-50)

     Once I celebrated the Eucharist in memory of an eighteen-year-old man, Antonio, who had been killed in a tragic accident. After the service I walked to the entrance of the church to express my deep-felt sorrow to Antonio’s mother. But I was so preoccupied with finding the right words for my own feelings that I kept my eyes on the floor and hardly dared to look at the mother and those who were with her. Finally I stuttered in my poor Spanish: ‘I really feel deeply about the great loss you have suffered. I have no good words for you, but I hope that you understand that I feel your pain.’

     My words came out hesitantly and fearfully. The mother, however, interrupted me by saying, ‘Thank you, Father, thank you very much for the beautiful Mass. . . Would you please come to our home and have dinner with us.’ I didn’t really hear her words and repeated, ‘I do feel deeply about the loss of your son.’ But she said again: ‘Thank you, thank you for the Mass and come to our home to eat with us.’ When I still didn’t hear her and kept my eyes downcast, she came closer, made me stand straight, looked me in the eyes, and said in a gentle tone: ‘Don’t be so depressed, Father. Don’t you know that God loves our Antonio, that God gave him to us for a few years and now wants to bring him to heaven? We are grateful that he was with us and we are grateful too that he can now be with God forever. We are grateful to you too. God loves us all and cares for us all. Please come and have a meal with us.’

     As I listened I saw her parents, brothers, sisters, her other sons and daughters, and her many grand-children standing around her and looking at me with wide-open, smiling eyes saying: ‘Yes, Father, yes. She is right. Come and be our guest.’ Then I realised that this suffering woman, surrounded by those who loved her, was giving me the fruit of her suffering: trust in God, gratitude, gentleness and care. She was sent to me as much as I was sent to her. She was ministering to me as much as I was ministering to her. She was offering me a word of consolation and strength that only she could speak, since she had suffered so much.

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