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True Gratitude Embraces All of Life

The passages below are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Turn My Mourning into Dancing,” published in 2001:


When we remain resentful of our Pain, we hold part of ourselves apart from God (15-21)

     Recently a friend left the Daybreak community to assume the leadership of another similar community. Her years of faithful self-giving were marked by moments of great joy as well as moments of great sorrow. She had developed warm and deep friendships, accomplished many beautiful things, and assumed roles of leadership. She had also experienced failure and disappointment because some of those long relationships had been broken along the way and at the end. During the months before she left, my friend, together with other members of their community, were heard to say things like, “We are thankful for all the good things that have happened, for all the friendships we have developed, for all the hopes that have been realised. We simply have to try to accept the painful moments.”

     Listening to comments like these, I began to wonder just exactly what it would mean for my friend and for the community members to choose to be grateful for all that happened to them in their beloved fellowship. How could their gratitude help them enter more fully into a dance of healing and a celebration of joy? Perhaps nothing helps us make the movement from our little selves to a larger world than remembering God in gratitude. Such a perspective puts God in view in all of life, not just in the moments we set aside for worship or spiritual disciplines. Nor just in the moments when life seems easy.

     If God is found in our hard times, then all of life, no matter how apparently insignificant or difficult, can open us to God’s work among us. To be grateful does not mean repressing our remembered hurts. But as we come to God with our hurts---honestly, not superficially---something life changing can begin slowly to happen. We discover how God is the One who invites us to healing. We realise that any dance of celebration must weave both the sorrows and the blessings into a joyful step.

     I once saw a stonecutter remove great pieces from a huge rock on which he was working. In my imagination I thought, That rock must be hurting terribly. Why does this man wound the rock so much? But as I look longer, I saw the figure of a graceful dancer emerge gradually from the stone, looking at me in my mind’s eye and saying, “You foolish man, didn’t you know I had to suffer and thus enter into my glory?” The mystery of the dance is that its movements are discovered in the mourning. To heal is to let the Holy Spirit call me to dance, to believe again, even amid my pain, that God will orchestrate and guide my life.

     We tend, however, to divide our past into good things to remember with gratitude and painful things to accept or forget. This way of thinking, which at first glance seems quite natural, prevents us from allowing our whole past to be the source from which we live our future. It locks us into a self-involved focus on our gain or comfort. It becomes a way to categorise, and in a way, control. Such an outlook becomes another attempt to avoid facing our suffering. Once we accept this division, we develop a mentality in which we hope to collect more good memories than bad memories, more things to be glad about than things to be resentful about, more things to celebrate than to complain about.

     Gratitude in its deepest sense means to live life as a gift to be received thankfully. And true gratitude embraces all of life: the good and the bad, the joyful and the painful, the holy and the not-so-holy. We do this because we become aware of God’s life, God’s presence in the middle of all that happens.

     Is it possible in a society where joy and sorrow remain radically separated? Where comfort is something we not only expect, but are told to demand? Advertisements tell us that we cannot experience joy in the midst of sadness. “Buy this,” they say, “do that, go there, and you will have a moment of happiness during which you will forget your sorrow.” But is it not possible to embrace with gratitude all of our life and not just the good things we like to remember?

     If mourning and dancing are part of the same movement of grace, we can be grateful for every moment we have lived. We can claim our unique journey as God’s way to mould our hearts to greater conformity to Christ. The cross, the primary symbol of our faith, invites us to see grace where there is pain; to see resurrection where there is death. The call to be grateful is a call to trust that every moment can be claimed as the way of the cross that leads to new life. When Jesus spoke to His disciples before His death and offered them His body and blood as gifts of life, He shared with them everything He had lived---His joy as well as His pain, His suffering as well as His glory---and enabled them to move into their own mission in deep gratitude. Day by day we find new reasons to believe that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ.

     Of course, it is easy for me to push the bad memories under the rug of my consciousness and think only about the good things that please me. It seems to be the way to fulfilment. By doing so, however, I keep myself from discovering the joy beneath the sorrow, the meaning to be coaxed out of even painful memories. I miss finding the strength that becomes visible in my weakness, the grace God told Paul would be “sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

     Gratitude helps us in this dance only if we cultivate it. For gratitude is not a simple emotion or an obvious attitude. Living gratefully requires practice. It takes sustained effort to reclaim my whole past as the concrete way God has led me to this moment. For in doing so I must face not only today’s hurts, but the past’s experiences of rejection or abandonment or failure or fear. While Jesus told His followers that they were intimately related to Him as branches are to a vine, they still needed to be pruned to bear more fruit (see John 15:1-5). Pruning means cutting, reshaping, removing what diminishes vitality. When we look at a pruned vineyard, we can hardly believe it will bear fruit. But when harvest comes, we realise that the pruning allowed the vines to concentrate their energy and produce more grapes.

     Grateful people learn to celebrate even amid life’s hard and harrowing memories because they know that pruning is no mere punishment, but preparation. When our gratitude for the past is only partial, our hope for the future can likewise never be full. But our submitting to God’s pruning work will not ultimately leave us sad, but hopeful for what can happen in us and through us. Harvest time will bring its own blessings.

     I am gradually learning that the call to gratitude asks us to say, “Everything is grace.” As long as we remain resentful about things we wish had not happened, about relationships that we wish had turned out differently, mistakes we wish we had not made, part of our heart remains isolated, unable to bear fruit in the new life ahead of us. It is a way we hold part of ourselves apart from God.

     Instead, we can learn to see our remembered experience of our past as an opportunity for ongoing conversion of the heart. We let what we remember remind us of whose we are---not our own, but God’s. If we are to be truly ready for a new life in the service of God, truly joyful at the prospect of God’s unfolding vocation for our lives, truly free to be sent wherever God guides, our entire past, gathered into the spaciousness of a converted heart, must become the source of energy that moves us onward.

     It was important, then, that the departure of my friend from our community be seen as moment in which to gather up everything she had lived and say, “Thanks be to God.” To call her history with us also as God’s journey alongside her would set her firmly on the path to her new calling.

     When I think of my own pain, the personal turmoil and inner unrest that I felt when I came to Daybreak, I realise how God graciously brought me not to a sheltered place, isolated from pain. On the contrary, nowhere can I better see hardship than among handicapped people who have suffered, not only the loss of their mental and even physical agility, but also of family support, educational opportunities, and the privileges of marriage and an independent life. I have been surrounded by people in great and inevitable need. And still, nowhere have I celebrated so much or so richly than among these men and women who have mourned over so many losses. When we celebrate together, we do not marshal degrees, prizes, promotions, or awards, but rather that the gift of life has revealed itself in the midst of all the losses.

     The decorations, cards, candles, wrapped gifts---the hugs, smiles, and kisses---are all expressions of life and hope. When I am part of these celebrations, be they the small celebrations around the dinner table or larger ones in the chapel or our meeting hall, I marvel at the dance to which the Spirit has called us.


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