Definitions of Gratitude by Henri J M Nouwen
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 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 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.
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Life of the Beloved” published in 1992:
1. Giving (pg 84-85)
Both of us know from experience the joy that comes from being able to do something for another person. You have done much for me, and I will always be grateful to you for what you have given me. Part of my gratitude, however, is the result of seeing you happy in giving me so much. It is so much easier to be grateful for a gift given in joy than for a gift given with hesitation or reluctance. Have you ever noticed the joy of a mother when she sees her baby smile? The baby’s smile is a gift to the mother who is grateful to see her baby so happy!
What a wonderful mystery this is! Our greatest fulfilment lies in giving ourselves to others. Although it often seems that people give only to receive, I believe that, beyond all our desires to be appreciated, rewarded and acknowledged, there lies a simple and pure desire to give. I remember how I once spent long hours looking in Dutch stores for a birthday gift for my father or mother, simply enjoying being able to give. Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life. . . .all of our life.
2. Giving Ourselves in Life and in Death (87-100)
It is sad to see that, in our highly competitive and greedy world, we have lost touch with the joy of giving. We often live as if our happiness depended on having. But I don’t know anyone who is really happy because of what he or she has. True joy, happiness and inner peace come from the giving of ourselves to others. A happy life is a life for others. That truth, however, is usually discovered when we are confronted with our brokenness.
Reflecting a little more on the way our friendship has grown over the years, I realise that there is a mysterious link between our brokenness and our ability to give to each other. We both went through periods of extreme inner pain. And during those painful times, we often felt that our lives had come to a standstill and that we had nothing to offer; but now, years later, those periods have proven to be the times that made us able to give more instead of less. Our brokenness opened us to a deeper way of sharing our lives and offering each other hope. Just as bread needs to be broken in order to be given, so, too, do our lives. But that clearly does not mean that we should inflict pain on each other or others to make us better givers. Even though a broken glass can shine brightly, only a fool will break glass to make it shine! As mortal people, brokenness is a reality of our existence, and as we befriend it and place it under the blessing, we will discover how much we have to give—much more than we may ever have dreamt.
Isn’t a meal together the most beautiful expression of our desire to be given to each other in our brokenness? The table, the food, the drinks, the words, the stories: are they not the most intimate ways in which we not only express the desire to give our lives to each other, but also to do this in actuality? I very much like the expression “breaking bread together,” because there the breaking and the giving are so clearly one. When we eat together we are vulnerable to one another. Around the table we can’t wear weapons of any sort. Eating from the same bread and drinking from the same cup call us to live in unity and peace. This becomes very visible when there is a conflict. Then, eating and drinking together can become a truly threatening event; then the meal can become the most dreaded moment of the day. We all know about painful silences during dinner. They contrast starkly with the intimacy of eating and drinking together, and the distance between those sitting around the table can be unbearable.
On the other hand, a really peaceful and joyful meal together belongs to the greatest moments of life.
Don’t you think that our desire to eat together is an expression of our even deeper desire to be food for one another? Don’t we sometimes say: “That was a very nurturing conversation. That was a refreshing time?” I think that our deepest human desire is to give ourselves to each other as a source of physical, emotional and spiritual growth. Isn’t the baby at its mother’s breast one of the most moving signs of human love? Isn’t “tasting” the best word to express the experience of intimacy? Don’t lovers in their ecstatic moments experience their love as a desire to eat and drink each other? As the Beloved ones, our greatest fulfilment lies in becoming bread for the world. That is the most intimate expression of our deepest desire to give ourselves to each other.
How can this be done? If our deepest fulfilment comes from being given as a gift for others, how do we go about living such a vision on a day-to-day basis in a society that speaks more about having than giving? I’d like to suggest two directions: giving oneself in life and giving oneself in death.
First of all, our life itself is the greatest gift to give—something we constantly forget. When we think about our being given to each other, what comes immediately to mind are our unique talents: those abilities to do special things especially well. You and I have spoken about this quite often. “What is our unique talent?” we asked. However, when focussing on talents, we tend to forget that our real gift is not so much what we can do, but who we are. The real question is not “What can we offer each other?” but “Who can we be for each other?” No doubt, it is wonderful when we can repair something for a neighbour, give helpful advice to a friend, offer wise counsel to a colleague, bring healing to a patient or announce good news to a parishioner, but there is a greater gift than all of this. It is the gift of our own life that shines through all we do. As I grow older, I discover more and more that the greatest gift I have to offer is my own joy of living, my own inner peace, my own silence and solitude, my own sense of well-being. When I ask myself, “Who helps me most?” I must answer, “The one who is willing to share his or her life with me.”
It is worthwhile making a distinction between talents and gifts. More important than our talents are our gifts. We may have only a few talents, but we have many gifts. Our gifts are the many ways in which we express our humanity. They are part of who we are: friendship, kindness, patience, joy, peace, forgiveness, gentleness, love, hope, trust and many others. These are true gifts we have to offer to each other.
Somehow I have known this for a long time, especially through my personal experience of the enormous healing power of these gifts. But since my coming to live in a community with mentally handicapped people, I have rediscovered this simple truth. Few, if any, of those people have talents they can boast of. Few are able to make contributions to our society that allow them to earn money, compete on the open market or win awards. But how splendid are their gifts! Bill, who suffered intensely as a result of shattered family relationships, has a gift for friendship that I have seldom experienced. Even when I grow impatient or distracted by other people, he remains always faithful and continues to support me in all I do. Linda, who has a speech handicap, has a unique gift for welcoming people. Many who have stayed in our community remember Linda as the one who made them feel at home. Adam, who is unable to speak, walk, or eat without help and who needs constant support, has the great gift of bringing peace to those who care for him and live with him. The longer I live in L’Arch, the more I recognise the true gifts that in us, seemingly non-handicapped people, often remain buried beneath our talents. The so-visible brokenness of our handicapped people has, in some mysterious way, allowed them to offer their gifts freely and without inhibition.
More surely than ever before, I know now that we are called to give our very lives to one another and that, in so doing, we become a true community of love.
Secondly, we are called to give ourselves, not only in life, but in death as well. As the Beloved Children of God, we are called to make our death the greatest gift. Since it is true that we are broken so as to be given, then our final brokenness, death, is to become the means to our final gift of self. How can that be true? It seems that death is the great enemy to be evaded for as long as possible. Dying is not something we like to think about or talk about. Still, one of the very few things we can be sure of is that we will die. I am constantly amazed by the lengths to which our society goes to prevent us from preparing ourselves well for death.
For the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, dying is the gateway to the complete experience of being the Beloved. For those who know they are chosen, blessed and broken to be given, dying is the way to becoming pure gift.
I do not think that you and I have spoken much about death. It seems far away, unreal. . . .something more for others than for us. Even though the media confront us daily with the tragic reality of countless people dying through violence, war, starvation and neglect, and even though we hear regularly that people in our own circle of family and friends have died, we pay very little attention to our own approaching death. In our society we barely take the time to mourn when a friend or family member dies. Everything around us encourages us to keep going “as if nothing has happened.” But then we never come in touch with our mortality, and when, finally, we have to face our own approaching death, we try to deny it as long as possible and are perplexed, yes even angry, when we cannot escape it.
Still, as the Beloved, I am called to trust that life is a preparation for death as a final act of giving. Not only are we called to live for others, but also to die for others. How is this possible?
Let me tell you first about two dear friends who have died during the past few months: Murray McDonnell and Pauline Vanier. I miss them. Their deaths are a painful loss. Whenever I think of them, I feel the biting pain that they are no longer in their homes with their families and friends. I can no longer call them, visit them, hear their voices or see their faces. I feel immense grief. But I believe deeply that their deaths are more than a loss. Their deaths are also a gift.
The deaths of those whom we love and who love us, open up the possibility of a new, more radical communion, a new intimacy, a new belonging to each other. If love is, indeed, stronger than death, then death has the potential to deepen and strengthen the bonds of love. It was only after Jesus had left His disciples that they were able to grasp what He truly meant to them. But isn’t that true for all who die in love?
It is only when we have died that our spirit can completely reveal themselves. Murray and Pauline were both beautiful people, but they were also people whose ability to love was limited by their many needs and wounds. Now, after their deaths, the needs and wounds that kept their spirits captive no longer inhibit them from giving their full selves to us. Now they can send us their spirits, and we can live in a new communion with them.
None of this happens without preparation. I know this because I have seen people die in anger and bitterness and with a great unwillingness to accept their mortality. Their deaths became sources of frustration and even guilt for those who stayed behind. Their deaths never became a gift. They had little to send. The spirit has been extinguished by the power of darkness.
Yes, there is such a thing as a good death. We ourselves are responsible for the way we die. We have to choose between clinging to life in such a way that death becomes nothing but a failure, or letting go of life in freedom so that we can be given to others as a source of hope. This is a crucial choice and we have to “work” on that choice every day of our lives. Death does not have to be our final failure, our final defeat in the struggle of life, our unavoidable fate. If our deepest human desire is, indeed, to give ourselves to others, then we can make our death into a final gift. It is so wonderful to see how fruitful death is when it is a free gift.
For Murray, who died very suddenly from heart failure, the last five years of his life were a preparation for his death. He had become increasingly vulnerable to his wife, Peggy, his nine children and their families, and to all those he loved. He also had found in himself the courage to make peace with all he had struggled with. His great openness to me, his sincere interest in my life with mentally handicapped people and his generous support of my writing had established a deep bond of friendship between us. Still, his death, shocking as it was, became a celebration of love. When his whole family gathered again a year after his death, everyone had beautiful stories to tell about how Murray had given much new life and new hope to all who mourned his leaving.
Pauline Vanier was ninety-three when she died. As the wife of the former governor-general of Canada, she had lived among the great and powerful of this world. But when, after the death of her husband, she joined her son Jean in his community with the weak and powerless, she became grandmother, mother, friend and confidante of many. During the year I lived in her house, she offered me much of her care and shared with me much of her wisdom. Coming to L’Arche will always be connected for me with loving “Mammie.” Although I miss her, I know that the fruits of her life will become more and more evident in my life and in the lives of all who were so close to her, and I trust that her spirit, so full of humour and prayer, will continue to guide us.
The death of the Beloved bears fruit in many lives. You and I have to trust that our short little lives can bear fruit far beyond the boundaries of our chronologies. But we have to choose this and trust deeply that we have a spirit to send that will bring joy, peace, and life to those who will remember us. Francis of Assisi died in 1226, but he is still very much alive! His death was a true gift, and today, nearly eight centuries later, he continues to fill his brothers and sisters, within and without the Franciscan orders, with great energy and life. He died, but never died. His life goes on bearing new fruit around the world. His spirit keeps descending upon us. More than ever I am convinced that death can, indeed, be chosen as our final gift of life.
You and I have only a short time to live. The twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years that are still ahead of us will go by very quickly. We can act as if we are to live forever and be surprised when we don’t, but we can also live with the joyful anticipation that our greatest desire to live our lives for others can be fulfilled in the way we choose to die. When it is a death in which we lay down our life in freedom, we and all we love will discover how much we have to give.
We are chosen, blessed and broken to be given, not only in life, but in death as well. As the Beloved Children of God, we are called to become bread for each other—bread for the world. This vision gives a new dimension to the Elisha story of the multiplication of the loaves. Elisha said to the servant who came with twenty barley loaves and fresh grain still in the husk: “Give it to the company to eat.” When the servant protested: “How can I serve this to a hundred men?” Elisha insisted: “Give it to the company.” He served them; they ate and had some left over.
Is this story not the true story of the spiritual life? We may be little, insignificant servants in the eyes of a world motivated by efficiency, control and success. But when we realise that God has chosen us from all eternity, sent us into the world as the blessed ones, handed us over to suffering, can’t we, then, also trust that our little lives will multiply themselves and be able to fulfil the needs of countless people? This might sound pompous and self-aggrandising, but, in truth, the trust in one’s fruitfulness emerges from a humble spirit. It is the humble spirit of Hannah who exclaimed in gratitude for the new life born in her: “My spirit exults in God my saviour—He has looked upon His lowly handmaid—and done great things for me. . . .from this day forward all generations will call me blessed.” The fruitfulness of our little life, once we recognise it and live it as the life of the Beloved, is beyond anything we ourselves can imagine. One of the greatest acts of faith is to believe that the few years we live on this earth are like a little seed planted in a very rich soil. For this seed to bear fruit, it must die. We often see or feel only the dying, but the harvest will be abundant even when we ourselves are not the harvesters.
How different would our life be were we truly able to trust that it multiplied in being given away! How different would our life be if we could but believe that every little act of faithfulness, every gesture of love, every word of forgiveness, every little bit of joy and peace will multiply and multiply as long as there are people to receive it. . . .and that—even then—there will be leftovers!
Imagine yourself as being deeply convinced that your love for Robin, your kindness to your friends and your generosity to the poor are little mustard seeds that will become strong trees in which many birds build their nests! Imagine that, in the center of your heart, you trust that your smiles and handshakes, your embraces and your kisses are only the early signs of a worldwide community of love and peace! Imagine that your trusting that every little movement of love you make will ripple out into ever new and wider circles—just as a little stone thrown into a still pond. Imagine, imagine. . . .Could you ever be depressed, angry, resentful or vengeful? Could you ever hate, destroy or kill? Could you ever despair of the meaning of your short earthly existence?
You and I would dance for joy were we to know truly that we, little people, are chosen, blessed, and broken to become the bread that will multiply itself in the giving. You and I would no longer fear death, but live toward it as the culmination of our desire to make all of ourselves a gift for others. The fact that we are so far from that state of mind and heart shows only that we are mere beginners in the spiritual life and have not yet fully claimed the full truth of our call. But let us be thankful for every little glimpse of the truth that we can recognise and trust that there is always more to see. . . .always.
Within a few years, we both will be buried or cremated. The houses in which we live will probably still be there, but someone else will live there and most likely know little or nothing about us. But I believe, and I hope you will too, that our brief, easily forgotten journey in this world will continue to give life to people through all times and places. The spirit of love, once freed from our mortal bodies, will blow where it will, even when few will hear its coming and going.
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.
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)