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June 7, 2010

gratitudeYours is the gift that is still gain

when everything is a loss,

and the life that flows

through the caverns of death.

               ~ R. Tagore

The conflicting tendencies toward resentment and gratitude are often at war with each other in the human heart.  Even when the mind knows it should be grateful, resentful feelings tug and pull away from rational response.  Blind urges conspire and tempt one to trust in power rather than presence to remedy and heal the aching soul.  For millennia the developed spiritual systems of humanity have understood the dynamics at play within this psychological-spiritual polarity.  Resentment is a corrosive attitude which threatens our well-being, destroys reason and diminishes our capacity for enjoyment.  Gratitude is more like an inborn readiness to receive with open hands what is given in one’s reality. Resentment, the interloper, refuses; gratitude accepts.

     Gratitude arises from the place of spirit within us that recognizes ultimate connection and care.  It is the true face of what the spiritual traditions call the transcendent self, or the true self.  In a magnificent poem tracing the contours of self-transformation, Rabindranath Tagore decries a former attitude of taking and ceaseless expectation before the Lord:

Time after time I came to your gate

with raised hands, asking for more and yet more.

You gave and gave . . .

. . . your gifts grew immense,

hiding you, and the ceaseless expectation

wore my heart out.

The awakening of gratitude in the human soul entails a new way of seeing: Tagore gradually sees through the gifts to the Giver of gifts, the invisible Presence lying behind all of the manifestations of care and provision.  The discovery that we are mysteriously accounted for and provided for leads to a very different disposition in Tagore:

Take, oh take – has now become my cry.

. . . hold my hands, raise me from

the still-gathering heap of your gifts

into the bare infinity

of your uncrowded presence.

    This sense of “more” is essential in the spiritual life.  Even if the soul is not being eaten away by resentful musings, there remains the common experience of a devitalized, “tranquilized” existence. Between the two poles of resentment and gratitude lies the vast and “lukewarm” landscape of everyday taken-for-grantedness. In the taken-for-granted attitude, one is involved in life, but the engagement lacks depth.  One does not see beyond the habitual routines and pleasures of life.  Blinded by complacent assurances that life is precisely as it should be, the “more” goes missing, yet is not missed.  The wonder and revelation of presence celebrated in Psalm 19, for example, does not appear to the tranquilized spirit:

The sky unfolds the story of your presence;

the firmament tells of the work of your hands.

Day after day overflows with speech;

night after night breathes out knowledge .

“There is no word or phrase/in which the voice of your creation is not heard,” the psalmist continues.  But what we are meant to hear and the value that increases immeasurably by appreciation remain absurdly absent when the spirit in us has gone to sleep.  Thornton Wilder wisely observed that “We can only be said to be alive when our hearts are conscious of their treasures.”  Even the youngest child who as yet is incapable of expressing in words the joy it feels when the primary caregiver is present, experiences presence positively.  The seeds of gratitude have been sown by human presence, and they are already beginning to grow.

    About the child’s natural open-ended sense of time, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote in Unless You Become Like This Little Child:

A child knows that God can find him/her at every moment because every moment opens up for him/her and shows him/her the very ground of time: as if it reposed on eternity itself. God’s “I am who am” also means: My being is such that I shall always be present in every moment of becoming.

We live in time.  Our being, unlike God’s, is temporal.  How we live out the utterly gratuitous gift of time reveals the state of our receptivity toward this gift at any point in time.  In forgetfulness of the essential childlike quality of our inner being, the resentful attitude betrays our misbegotten frustration with this gift and a corresponding lack of trust in the Giver.  In its complacency and failure of imagination, the tranquilized spirit cannot see gift, does not recognize what is uniquely offered, will not “awaken” from the commonplace.  Only the grateful heart intuits that its time is a treasure so magnificent and precious that repentance – soul response – is unavoidable: time spent as anything other than as a child of God, cared for and loved by God, is wasted, lost time.

    The Psalms of David were long thought to be the outpourings of spirit of King David – the poet-singer-leader who humbly-sorrowfully-joyfully danced before the Lord.  The kingdom of God, he knew in his bones, was there – immediate and always available to him.  All he had to do was to turn to God.  The turning was both offering and acceptance, a bitter-sweet rendering of everything about his life and the grateful reception of abiding presence.

Song of David

On that cool evening

I forgot myself

and danced before the Lord

danced my heart out, knowing

          He was there

          in every part of me

          filling the vast emptiness

          I had created in myself

          by forgetfulness, willful passion

          one false move after another.

Naked inside and out,

I turned


my desire for God

how much I was loved

Yielding to such love

I was lifted up

light of mind, heart and limbs

my being leapt

dancing with the Almighty

My words leapt too

words waiting to be

released by grace

drawing tears

so that I virtually melted

rejoicing in songs

transforming me

lover and beloved:


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Last updated: 11/24/10.