2020 is proving to be a year of Apocalypse. We are collectively reeling from the pandemic. Communities of colour are affected more severely on all fronts. People are suffering, stir-crazy, angry, politically divided, and confused about how best to confront the challenges before us all. We are muddling through; doing, I hope, our best to apply ourselves to the problems at hand with empathy and solidarity.
It seems to me that now, we need to reach down deep for spiritual, emotional, and contemplative resources. The best one I know is gratitude.
Gratitude is Spirituality. We need to learn to practice gratitude so that we can pay attention to the world. This helps us to guard against spiritual bypassing by holding us accountable to reality and inviting us to sift through circumstances as they are so that we might accept them and find the lessons and opportunities for participation inside them.
Gratitude is at once the most difficult of practices, and the most simple. It can take a colossal effort of will to move from an energy of discouragement and hopelessness into an energy of appreciation. But the effort is worth it. We practice gratitude so that we can engage with the stark reality of the world from a vantage point of Love.
So, even in 2020, Gratitude is my Spirituality, my Religion. I sincerely urge all spiritual people to practice gratitude as a spiritual discipline, as a holy resistance, and as a compassionate engagement with the present moment.
The spiritual practice of gratitude is a daily challenge to courageously forge into the Now in search of the Divine. It is a daily call to curiosity. What could I possibly find to appreciate or offer thanks for in this midst of what, on any given day, might be a terrible reality?
I’m not advocating for wide-eyed optimism. I’m advocating that we intentionally practice a deep, spiritual, grounded faith that begins in the most lowly place. For example, gratitude for our existence, and the land we live on. As the indigenous people of the United States can teach us, we begin: “We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life” (1). And as our Christian sacred texts teach us, we begin: “I thank and praise you, God of my ancestors…” (Daniel 2:23).
Because of this, I regularly advocate that people who want to deepen their spirituality begin with gratitude. I have often as a practitioner encourage people to write a morning gratitude lists, similar to the gratitude journals spoken of by teachers of many stripes, from the Dalai Lama to Julian of Norwich (and many others).
This point of pen on paper can be a powerful transformative force in our lives; we begin from a posture of thankfulness for blessing – whatever blessing we can scrounge up amidst whatever life situations we experience. Our connection to Divine Love and self-knowledge can start here, and it is a long-term pathway to spiritual growth and maturity. It was Julian who said, “Gratitude is a true understanding of who we really are.” And when we learn the truth of ourselves in relation to the Divine and recognise the Divine Within, we become more spiritually awake.
We touch the “Greening Force… enfolded in the weaving of Divine mysteries” (2), of which mystics like Hildegard of Bingen so eloquently write, by way of our attention and gratitude practice. This baseline gratitude then blossoms and branches out to foster other virtues in us: empathy, compassion, right action, holy rage toward injustice, and joy.
In the words of WWII martyr and Nazi-resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.” Grateful people have more access to joy. And the feeling of joy is a sacred resistance of evil and of the forces of the world that would have us inattentive, morose and unresistant. As the author and activist Adrienne Maree Brown writes, “Feeling good is not frivolous, it is freedom.” (3) Fostering within ourselves a deep gratitude that leads to joy is a sacred liberating lifeforce.
By our attention to the Divine, and our humble posture of gratitude at receiving, we resist empire. We resist colonising forces that hierarchise and find inner freedom. We resist the sirens of Capitalism insisting that we must acquire and hoard. Because gratitude practice draws our attention to the abundance around us, it leads us away from a scarcity mindset. Instead of focusing on what we lack, we foster contentment that frees us to enjoy what we have.
In this we also resist our own human temptation to feel entitled. We resist whiteness’ cultural imperative to own. Instead we are free to practice appreciation, and to hold every gift we encounter with an open handed lightness. Instead of a compulsion to get and keep, gratitude invites us to behold.
Gratitude practice teaches us and develops our strength in compassionate engagement. When we can come at the world from a perspective of appreciation, we allow ourselves the opportunity to love the world, in the midst of its chaos.
This trains our brains, digging synaptic pathways of gratitude that we can cultivate and rely upon on difficult days. Gratitude prepares our neural pathways in ways that make us more resilient, less easily traumatised, more easily bent but not broken, and more strategically present (4). Grateful people are better able to enter into seemingly hopeless situations, bringing help, practical solutions and clear thought.
In the words of Nelson Mandela, “The time is always ripe to do right.” And we are better able to see the ripeness of the time because we have learned to pay attention and practice thankfulness. In this way we increase our ability to be responsive to a circumstance, rather than reactive. I believe that grateful people change the world by means of their gratitude, and by the virtuous action gratitude gives way to over time. They see the world from Love’s perspective and thus can love it into wholeness.
We echo Christ
In giving thanks and practising thanksgiving, we follow the example and words of Christ as recorded in the Gospels:
… “He took the cup, and when he had given thanks…” (Luke 22)
… “Father, I thank you that you have heard me…” (John 11)
… “I thank you,… Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children…” (Matthew 11)
… “[Jesus] took the seven loaves and the fish, and He gave thanks, broke them, and kept on giving them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds…” (Matthew 15)
We know that prayer and contemplation were foundational to Christ’s life and work on the earth; and I believe it’s safe to say that the intentional practice of gratitude was, and is, an essential fuel of his initiating and living out the Commonwealth of God here. Gratitude is a pathway into Christ-consciousness. This simple, humble practice that grounds us in the knowledge that everything we have, we have received. Every work or movement toward justice that we participate in was begun before us. Every breath we take, molecule we drink, morsel we eat is supplied by the Divine. When gratitude fuels us we are able to see and appreciate the world, to love it, and to work for its good in this moment of desperate need.
- –HidegardVon Bingen. Causae et Curae
- Adrienne Maree Brown, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Felling
Dr Allan J. Whyte, DClinPsych, MA in Systemic Psychotherapy. I’m a retired Clinical Psychologist who has worked with children and young families for over 40 years, including working in research on attachment, childhood amnesia and clinical work with children, young people and their parents with a range of presentations. I have worked in a number of settings including CAMH, Action for Children and Save the Children. I currently run a group for the U3A in March, Cambs, on the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
Disclaimer: This blog is intended to provide a space for people associated with APF to express their own personal views and opinions in order to promote discussion of issues relating to peacemaking and pacifism It is not necessarily a place where the official views of APF are expressed.