A spirituality of gratitude
Gratitude allows us to see all of life as abundant gift.
By Molly T. Marshall
Celebrating a college homecoming is an occasion for longing as well as gratitude. I returned to my alma mater, Oklahoma Baptist University, this past weekend to gather with the class of 1972. (My, they looked old!) Reviewing the 40 years since our graduation allowed these emotions to surface.
The longing part has to do with the recognition that few of us are fully present to the people and circumstances of our lives, especially when we are so brimming with self-importance and promise in young adulthood. I remember Fred Craddock warning that if we are not careful, we might miss the best parts of our lives. The practice of attentiveness eludes most of us until an interruptive crisis ensues.
Longing nudges us to recognize squandered opportunities and ethical lapses, and longing beckons us to hand over all the epochs of our lives to God for healing integration. Longing also prompts awakening to our present, lest we be inattentive in this part of our lives.
Gratitude can become the overwhelming disposition in our retrospection. Ralph Waldo Emerson understood this and admonished:
Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.
Being grateful for those who contributed to our lives -- both professors and classmates -- expresses appropriate humility and recognizes how interdependent our lives really are. Imaging the Triune God in community, we are constituted by our relationships.
As I strolled around the campus, I became acutely aware of the grace of administrators and professors who saw more in us than we could yet claim. As I approached the golden bison on a pedestal in the historic oval, I recalled being boosted by friends so that I could sit on it in majestic triumph. No sooner was I astride the school’s mascot than they all abandoned me. There was no way down!
It remained for the dean of students to bring a ladder and a lecture, having been tipped off by my loyal friends. Mercifully, he saw the humor in the situation, and even though in loco parentis was fully operative (especially for women) in those days, my collegiate career continued.
Gratitude also welled as I reflected on the lives of professors who single mindedly pursued their vocations as Christian scholars. Often interrogating the narrowness of untested faith, their lives radiated a graceful quest for thoughtful believing and service. Graduates carry the imprint of their witness. The “hidden curriculum” often became the most formative dimension of their instruction.
Scripture prompts us to consider gratitude as an index of spiritual health. Giving thanks should be as regular as breathing, and when we live in grateful awareness of God’s providence in our lives, we better understand the calculus of grace.
Meister Eckhart, 13th century Christian mystic, offers simple counsel: “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
Another contemplative, Thomas Merton, echoes his wisdom:
Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.
It does matter that we cultivate gratitude. Without it we will not see the mantle of divine generosity that has cloaked our human need. Gratitude allows us to see all of life as abundant gift.
It will be a while before I return to the wind-swept plains where Oklahoma Baptist University resides -- God willing, another decade. However, I pray that the experience of gratitude kindled by homecoming will only deepen in the ensuing years. It is a transformative spiritual practice.
To those Bison forebears who are in God’s safekeeping, we give thanks. Thornton Wilder put it this way: “The highest tribute to the dead is not grief, but gratitude.” And grateful I am.
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