A Life of Gratitude
We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves at fires we did not light.
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
Each of us is blessed with gifts from those who were here before us
And have gifts to pass on to others in our turn.
(adapted from the Book of Deuteronomy)
Gratitude is a feeling of being thankful in life, a readiness to show appreciation and to express our thanks in some way. This morning I’m going to explore why gratitude is good for us, and consider it as a form of religious expression, a spiritual practice that can be helpful whatever our beliefs. I won’t tell you anything you don’t know already but gratitude is one of those bits of life that I need reminding about from time to time, so I’m hoping this might be useful for you as much as it has been for me. A week of thinking about, and reading about, gratitude has made a difference to me.
It’s not surprising that it’s made a difference because the very process of having grateful thoughts – of thinking and saying ‘thank you’ type thoughts – has an effect on us both psychologically and physiologically. Our minds and our bodies are changed by gratitude. I wonder if all of us at this moment could think a ‘thank you’ thought – being grateful for anything that pops into your head – perhaps for this autumn day, nice day for yesterday’s sunshine and the bright coloured leaves starting to fall, for a good breakfast, living in a safe country, doing something nice later – let’s hold that feeling of gratitude for 30 seconds or so.
If we were wired up now to various measuring machines we’d see that all sorts of interesting things are happening to us when we feel thankful. All sorts of neural pathways are lighting up, sparking, connecting. If you start a practice of feeling grateful and practice that a few times every day – a brain scan can show an increase of activity in various parts of the brain including the amygdala area – the centre for emotional responses. And when gratitude is practiced regularly those areas of the brain stay more switched on. Not surprising then that gratitude practices are said to help with feelings of depression. People who feel gratitude are apparently also more likely to act generously towards others – gratitude seems to set off a virtuous cycle of behaviour which has a positive effect on human relationships.
Having an orientation towards gratitude in life means we’re more likely to appreciate what is and less likely to take things for granted – we tend to notice more and appreciate more – especially perhaps the little things. Isn’t that one of the pleasures of being out in the natural world – there’s lots of little things to notice out there. Gardeners will tell us how much there is to appreciate outside when you get down to the earth itself. Our senses are activated, we feel more alive, more present to the moment that is.
Henri Nouwen takes it to another level when he writes that “to be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives – the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections – that requires hard spiritual work.”
Nouwen, a Dutch born Catholic priest worked with people who had tough lives. He helped people to work through their difficulties by finding often quite small things to feel grateful for. And this path is also demonstrated by Stephen Levine who has worked extensively with issues of death and dying over the decades. It’s his quote we’ve chosen for the front of today’s order of service:
“Gratitude is the highest form of acceptance. Like patience, it is one of the catalytic agents, one of the alchemist’s secrets, for turning dross to gold, hell to heaven, death to life.”
Our gratitude can be a companion to us in times of loss, a reminder that the very experience of loss is an indicator of the depth of love and connection we have felt and experienced. But don’t let’s imagine for one moment that this kind of spiritual practice is easy or always possible. There are times in every life when we cannot access a feeling of gratitude – when our pain, our suffering, our problems, our disappointments are too strong and need to be attended to and accepted. When you’re in one of those difficult times in life – and I imagine most of us have been in such a time or are maybe even experiencing it at the moment – in the difficult times, are you like me? Do you become incredibly aware, both of the people who can simply sit with you in your pain and those who feel a need to cheer you up? It’s the ones who can just be with me in all my distress that I feel most grateful for in life’s difficult moments. And strangely when someone accepts me just as I am my feelings seem more able to move onward. There’s a spiritual practice for us all – acceptance of what is – being real and true to the present moment, whatever it holds.
Another of gratitude’s spiritual messages is that we are not isolated, independent beings but part of something greater than ourselves – we need one another and we need this planet earth on which we live – without them we are nothing. As children are taught to say thank when they receive a gift or a kindly act, we adults may also need to heighten our awareness of the very reciprocity of life – the inter-relatedness of all that is – and that extends from the simple level – of a door being opened for us and a cup of tea being made to the profound gift of life itself, the miracle of our breath and our senses. For each of you and for this place and for this day, I am truly grateful. Thank you for being here and thank you for being you. Amen
Some Gratitude Practices
Try making a note of three things each day for which you are grateful. Keep these lists going for a while and enjoy the pleasure of re-reading them from time to time. Make a list of 100 Blessings of your life. Include all that is precious, pleasurable, special to you. Be specific and descriptive. For example:
• The smell of a sunny autumn day and the crunch of dry leaves beneath my feet
• Eating a delicious bag of chips wrapped in paper with lots of vinegar on
And some blessings chosen by our children’s group members:
• I am grateful for having food
• I am grateful for having my family
• I am grateful for my health
• I am grateful for water
What would be in your own list of 100 Life Blessings?
Rev. Sarah Tinker
Sermon – 25th October 2015