My family and I recently went to Columbus, Ohio, where my wife, Diane, grew up, to see an Ohio State football game. This trip was far more than to see a game; it was a pilgrimage of gratitude for her father who passed away this spring. One of her fondest childhood memories was going to the Rose Bowl to watch Ohio State play, but she had never been to a home game in Columbus. Isn’t it wonderful that we have a God of surprises, and we had a great surprise on Sunday when attending the church where we were married. The sermon was about gratitude, and the minister referenced Henri Nouwen who had been his teacher at Yale Divinity School. Nouwen, an inspiration to me, is an internationally renowned priest, professor and author, who wrote over 40 books on the spiritual life. Most of all, he is a beloved pastor. In 1986, after teaching at Yale and Harvard, he made his home in L’Arche Daybreak near Toronto, one of Jean Vanier’s Christian communities where people with developmental disabilities are the core members, and those without are the assistants.
And so on this Sunday, as we felt so grateful for Diane’s father and all of our blessings, Nouwen’s former student preached on gratitude. He told the story of how Nouwen would lead students after dinner back into the kitchen to thank all those who had prepared their meal. These were loving encounters, sharing about family and daily lives. But to me, Nouwen was teaching a gratitude far deeper than appreciation for their service in preparing the meal; he was practicing a loving, mutually enriching gratitude for who they are, for who his students are, as children of God. In the spiritual practice of gratitude, we are our true holy selves, united with and through God with each other and all of creation. We no longer see others or ourselves by how we are seen and relate to one another in the secular world, by what we have or can do or social status. Rather we see with the eyes of Christ, and see others as fellow members of the body of Christ. Nouwen made it a point to tell his students how important this kind of gratitude was and to carry this on after he was gone.
In the language of Martin Buber, I and Thou, it is in this kind of spiritual gratitude that we see each other as a thou, and not as an object. We embrace the full mystery, richness, and unknowable fullness of another’s being. To me this is what it means to be in the body of Christ, seeing Christ in each other and thereby becoming more like Christ. Paul shouts in Colossians 3:11 “There is only Christ, he is everything, and he is in everything.” In this way, we are joyously grateful to Christ because in and through Christ we can be with others as thous. We flawed human beings cannot do this on our own, so blinded by our own egos and exclusionary identities of tribe, politics, culture and history. We can do this only through self-emptying humility and being filled with a sense of awe and wonder before the unifying love and sustaining creativity of God. In Christ-centered gratitude, we open our hearts and minds fully to receive the spiritual gifts of others; we grow in love, courage, faith, hope, compassion and creativity. We transcend the labels and identities that can divide and separate us, and rejoice in the unity of our shared identity in Christ. This depth of gratitude for one another that Nouwen exemplified for his students is the divine reciprocity we encounter in Stephen Ministry as care givers with our care receivers, the amazing grace we feel when in giving we are receiving so much more, each of us growing in the presence of Christ.
It was to practice gratitude as a spiritual discipline, as a way of life, that I believe led Nouwen to leave Yale and Harvard, certainly the peak of social and intellectual success, to spend the rest of his life at L’Arche. Here in this community, these thous together could live the astonishing good news of Christ: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Here and now, and forever, in the miracle, mystery and paradox of the Cross, the persecuted, the least, the little children, the hungry, the poor, the prisoners, the disabled can live, share and build the kingdom of heaven. Christ turns the world upside down, not to merely change positions, those at the bottom now at the top, and those at the margins now at the center. But rather he invites all of us into a personal spiritual transformation that overflows into an ongoing social revolution, seeing all equally as unique and original children of God and acting on this transformative vision. We are all in Christ, we are all with Christ whether in the center or at the margins, top or bottom. In whatever conditions or circumstances, whether in joy or suffering, whatever our abilities, we transcend these human categories and experiences, we surpass seeing and judging the world through the measures of man, and are never more ourselves then when we do.
I would like to conclude with a beautiful prayer by Henry Viscardi. Viscardi was born with stumps for legs and spent the first eight years of his life in hospitals. His is an inspiring story of triumph not just over his disability but, more importantly, over others’ attitudes toward people with disabilities. The founder of many organizations that help individuals with disabilities live full and active lives, he was an adviser to every president from Roosevelt to Carter. For me, he is like the blind man in the gospel of John who is healed by Jesus; Viscardi too responded to his disability as an opportunity to glorify the saving grace and love of God. I think you will see that like Nouwen, gratitude is his central message too.
Finding Blessedness in One’s Own History
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of others.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for.
Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am most richly blessed.