At a conference in Belgium I attended, people around the dinner table got talking about the different countries they were from, and the characteristic spirit of each nation.
One of us remarked that every country has its own path of repentance, just as each person has a particular path of repentance. Repentance means turning around, turning anew toward God, seeing things differently, walking a new way, being open to transformation. That’s why each person’s path of repentance is personal. But what about each nation? Someone in the group named Canada’s national path of repentance this way: gratitude.
At first I was surprised. Soon, and since, I’ve been considering how gratitude might be an antidote for our culture’s illnesses.
Our increasingly anxious, worried and depressed way of life, with its veiled anger and protective coldness, afflicts us. In a culture of confusion and anxiety, how do we find our way? How do we sort through all the noises and voices, information and propaganda, to find what’s solid and worthwhile? Often I’m asked such questions, especially by young adults. They’re questions of high urgency, as we’ve successfully manufactured a cluttered, chaotic environment, seemingly capable of keeping anybody from finding the path to life. Can our youth be expected to flourish without any assistance or sustenance in such a whirlwind? What guidance can we offer them?
Turning toward gratitude could well be the medication we need for our healing and wholeness. If we can’t take this prescription for our own sake, perhaps we could try it for the sake of our youth.
In the wake of the celebrations for our national birthday this past month, we could reflect on our path of repentance. What would change if we turned more often toward gratitude?
Consider the example of St Martha, whose feast is also this month (July 29): the perplexed woman who got such unfair treatment from her good friend Jesus, when he and his disciples came a-calling and she offered them hospitality (Luke 10:38-42). Martha’s generosity, practicality, the justice of her plea for help, make us want to stick up for her: “Tell her sister Mary to help her look after you and your friends, who’ve arrived at her house and expect her to feed them.” She needed assistance; she turned to Jesus for support — but got scolded instead. Who wants to be told “Your sister is the one who got it right”? If anybody in this story should be grateful, logically it’s Mary who got the meal without the work, or Jesus himself who was being served by Martha.
Martha sees her work, her concerns, her rights. Jesus sees Martha. Instead of giving her what’s fair, Jesus turns her back toward herself: “What’s going on with you, Martha? You’re anxious and worried.” He puts her in the picture, and asks her to look again.
Then he turns her toward himself, and her relationship with him: “You’re anxious and worried, and you forgot to be with me.” He brought her the gift of presence — human presence — divine presence — but she didn’t quite know how to receive it. Be grateful, Martha: the one you love is here with you. The one who cares deeply about you has come to your home. This relationship is the place of life, the fountain from which to drink. That’s the gift you have.
With our many possessions and many cares, we as a nation may well be anxious, worried and burdened with looking after things, or looking after others. Maybe we’re burdened with guilt for having so much while others have so little. It’s a perpetual-motion machine that keeps us afflicted. Gratefulness doesn’t mean being thankful for our burdens; that would be perverse and harmful. It means being present to all that really is a gift.
To us, so accustomed to buying and spending, paying and being paid, the logic of commerce, it may seem alien simply to rejoice in gift. Gratitude requires conversion and repentance; it offers us life. It’s as simple and as difficult as what Jesus asks of Martha: stop worrying and start sitting with Jesus.
The Belgian conversation was a long time ago, but it planted something in my mind and heart. I can let anxieties, worries, insecurities and cares occupy all my attention, keep me from sleep, drive me to addictions and compulsions. But I don’t have to.
Without gratitude, the spiritual teachers tell us, we will lose all we have. With it, perhaps we will discover — as my sister once observed — we all have what we really need, but we don’t all know it. When we know what we have been given, then we start to know that we can give, and want to give. Maybe Martha’s serving now can come not out of resentful duty but out of fullness and abundance. Maybe she can find that those around her want to give, too, and start to be able to receive from them. Us, too.
Happy gratitude, Canada.
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org