One common characteristic in the lives of many saints is the presence and abundance of gratitude. The grace of God that permeates many of their lives indicate something very important that seems to be at the heart of what it means to live a holy life. It is to live a grateful life, and to remember that one is never really a self-made man or woman.
But to be able to be grateful for everything one has in life is a corollary to the gift of receptivity, as rightly pointed out by Fr. Rolheiser in his book “Against An Infinite Horizon.” It is the lack of gratitude and receptivity that marks the beginnings of the original sin of our first parents, which is graphically presented in the creation story of Genesis. What this story also shows is that there seems to be a slowness, or perhaps even a strange reluctance to be in a state of receptivity and following from that, gratitude in life. It does seem that when one isn’t somewhat graced or taught and trained, one can grow up to have a sense of entitlement that easily contributes to one’s impatience, intolerance and false sense of superiority. Their opposites – patience, long-suffering and humility find their roots when one knows early on in life that one came into the world with nothing, and will leave it with nothing.
Declan, a dear nephew of mine lives with the condition known as Muscular Dystrophy (MD). People with MD have a very weakened musculoskeletal system, hampering their movement. A most charming boy of 13 now, he relies heavily on the use of a wheelchair for mobility in school and at home. What strikes anyone who has the privilege to meet him is his constantly joyful demeanor, and how positive he is about everything in life. One can just imagine that a boy who is confined to a wheelchair can become angry, bitter and indignant when he sees his friends and classmates happily running around and kicking a soccer ball in the field. But not Declan. Ask him any day how his day went, and with a brightness and cheer that comes from deep within, he will answer “great!” In all the years that I have known him, I have never heard him complain of his condition. He manages to see so many things as gift, and each time I visit him in his room, I have a sense that this boy has the innate ability to teach me something about receptivity and gratitude in ways that many books cannot.
This spirit of thankfulness and gratitude that I see so clearly in life in him is constantly giving me the mindfulness of being thankful for the many people who have helped me through my chemotherapy sessions and subsequent hospital treatments. Nurses who came to do the smallest of things like clearing my urine bottle in the middle of the night, taking many many vials of blood samples at 4am each day, or who gave me my many medications left my room very often with a word of thanks. Some of them said it was unnecessary to do so as if they had done something extraordinary to merit such gratitude. To me, they did more than just their job.
I grew in my consciousness that much in life comes to us as gift, sometimes wrapped in service, often in mere presence and a kindly demeanor. These are not owed us. They are gifts given. If I were not given the grace of my experience of having blood cancer, I don’t think I would have come to this realization that forcefully and convincingly.
When Jesus taught his sermon on the mount and declared that blessed are the poor for the kingdom of heaven is theirs, he was saying that there is a certain concealed advantage that poverty, which includes other sufferings like illness, failure in life, embarrassment, a personal shamefulness, and disability, provides. These are very often hidden pathways through which one can attain a greater grace. Sure, without the proper mindset and attitude, they can also trigger things very negative in people like rancor, rage, envy and many forms of irritations. But when channeled well and with a willingness to live under the shadow of the Cross, a transformation is made possible.
Adam and Eve’s desire to take rather than receive with a receptivity and gratitude marked their (and our) downfall. Our return to grace and eventually heaven has to teach us of the need to live not in a spirit of entitlement, but one of receptive gratitude. When this is lived out, we will soar in the Lord even though our physical limbs may be weakened.