I'm sure we were gratefully reading one of Nouwen's books.
A few years ago – OK, I lied…decades ago – I lived in a semi-hippie Christian community in the Oregon Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia. Those of us who were part of Community of the Servant shopped at the local food co-op and ate together. We talked endlessly about justice issues and tried to figure out how to make a difference. We gathered for worship on Sunday afternoons (after worshipping at “real” churches) and read books that challenged our notions of community and spirituality.
One of those books was authored by the beloved Henri Nouwen. A Dutch Catholic priest, Nouwen was, and still is, an influential theologian. For many years, he was a professor of pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School. He shockingly gave up his position at Yale to live in the L’Arche Community in Toronto. L’Arche provides homes around the world where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers.
Nouwen lived at L’Arche for the last ten years of his life. He died in 1996 at the age of 64. In all, he wrote 42 books, most of them short but all of them dense in content.
His words still resonate. In his most-widely read book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen analyzes Rembrandt’s painting by the same name, based on the famous story in Luke’s gospel. Nouwen takes the reader on an exploration of each character in the story. He asks us to see ourselves in each actor: the son, the brother, and the father.
The older brother generally gets short shrift. You know, the brother who is mad that his father is throwing a whale of a party for his supposedly undeserving wayward son? He is bitter. Angry. Resentful. And many of us, to our chagrin, see ourselves in that older brother.
In response, Nouwen writes about our need to consider how a discipline of gratitude can change our hearts:
Gratitude…goes beyond the “mine” and “thine” and claims that all of life is a pure gift…the discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all that I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy…
The choice of 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…Acts of gratitude make one grateful because, step by step, they reveal that all is grace.
On one hand, my immediate response is, “Seriously? Claiming that all of life is a pure gift? Isn’t that a bit Pollyannaish?” And then I consider the alternative. Being bitter. Angry. Resentful. Suddenly, developing that attitude – that discipline – of gratitude looks pretty appealing.
Developing a discipline of anything takes practice. That goes for gratitude too.
- Keep a gratitude journal.
- Write a thank you letter once a week.
- Pay for someone’s coffee behind you.
- Acknowledge the generosity of your congregation.
As Nouwen says, choosing gratitude over anger, bitterness, and resentment can move you to do the more difficult and surprising thing:
…Loving without expecting to be loved in return,
giving without wanting to receive,
inviting without hoping to be invited,
holding without asking to be held.
Sadly, no one said this life would be easy or fair. By practicing the discipline of gratitude life can take on a different hue. It can be rosier. It may not all be rainbows and unicorns, but it sure as heck beats the alternative.