Thursday, November 24, 2011

Surprised into Gratitude

St. Dorothy’s Rest is one of our diocesan retreat centers.  It is a very special place with a variety of beautiful ministries, but perhaps the most unique of these is its medical camping programs for children.  Each summer, St. Dorothy’s hosts two such camps: one for children with cancer and another for children who have received organ transplants. 
You can imagine the grace and care shared among campers, counselors, nurses, and chaplains at these camps.  It is one of the few places in the lives of these children where they can truly relax and be themselves – where they can feel normal and be treated just like everybody else.  Our bishop, Marc Andrus, serves as chaplain at the camps.  He describes one morning gathering there in this way:
“Campers and counselors all standing in a circle, holding onto each other,  [were] asked . . .  to name one thing for which each of us is grateful. When two tiny boys, at different points in the circle said, "Scientists," my heart was pierced, but when perhaps the smallest child said, simply, "Life," I was not sure I could trust myself to walk, in all truth. To see so clearly, to say it with such simple honesty, at such a young age, tutored by loss and pain, and also by love - I was overwhelmed.”[1]
Brother David Steindl-Rast has written that the root of gratitude is the capacity to be surprised.[2]  The children at St. Dorothy’s were surprised to be alive.  They were surprised to be treated as human beings rather than as problems to be fixed or freaks to be avoided.  They were surprised by joy.  It is this capacity to be surprised, to take nothing for granted, that gave birth to their gratitude. 
When we are in touch with the truth that everything is gift: the air we breath, the water we drink, the blooming rose, the moonlight on the ocean, the food at our table - everything is gift - it is then that we wake-up to the wonder of it all and fall into gratitude. 
In pondering the ten lepers who were healed in today’s Gospel story, I can’t help but wonder if the one who returned to give thanks was the only one of the ten who was actually surprised by his healing.  Perhaps the other nine expected to be healed, even felt entitled to be healed. 
They were after all, Jews, following the normal process of going to the priests – who acted somewhat like public health officers – to verify their healing so that they could be reintegrated into normal society.  Their healing represented a reversion to the status quo; nothing special, so far as they were concerned.

The Samaritan, however, would remain an outcast among Jews, a second-class citizen, even after his leprosy was healed.  Thus for him, his healing was doubly amazing: why would Jesus, a Jewish teacher and healer, take any interest in him whatsoever?  His healing was a gift indeed, because it represented a double inclusion – a return to health but even more importantly, an invitation to community. 

It seems to me that there are two main barriers to gratitude.  The first is a sense of entitlement, the belief that we deserve or have earned all the blessings of life.  That is, of course, patently absurd.  We didn’t create the planet or even grow our own food, for that matter.  We depend upon the gratuity of the natural and social world for so much that we take for granted. 

Still, the illusion of independence remains and is related to the other barrier to gratitude: our fear of vulnerability.  To be grateful is to realize our dependence upon others, to acknowledge our need, and to be willing to accept our limitations.  There is risk involved in this, to be sure, but that is the nature of being alive.  All life is risk.  All the more reason to be surprised by how much God and other people hold us in love.  All the more reason to be grateful for the many blessings that come our way at the hand of others, many of them strangers whom we will never even meet.

The children, gathered around the circle at St. Dorothy’s, recognized their need and their limitations.  They were surprised to be alive and to be loved.  They were grateful for everything.  And so, like the Samaritan in our story, they turned back on the road to healing and said, “Thank you.” 

Our lives are a shared journey on the road to healing – the improbable, unimaginable, and unearned healing that God shares with us in Jesus, in the invitation to live forever in God’s deathless love.  From time to time, we turn back on the road and return to this Table so that we, too, might say “Thank you.”  It is the most important prayer, the one truly necessary prayer, that we will ever say.

Here we are in the world, alive. What a surprise!  In spite of our best efforts to wreak havoc in that world, to spend the gift as if we were entitled to more and more and more, or to hoard it with anxious, grasping fingers, still the Giver surprises us again and again.

In the sublime words of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.[3]

[1] The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus, “St. Dorothy’s Rest” at
[2] See chapter one of Brother David Stendl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer.
[3] “God’s Grandeur”

No comments: