Thursday, 11 December 2014

on practising gratitude

Year B | Advent 3

Isaiah 61.1-4,8-11; Canticle: Magnificat; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8,19-28

The third Sunday in Advent is also known as Gaudete Sunday, which comes from the Latin word for rejoice. Now Advent is, on the whole, a penitential season. It is a time when we remember that there is much that is wrong with the world, as well as the things that are far from perfect in our own lives. Our worship reflects this sombre tone. We don't sing the Gloria during Advent. No flowers adorn the church. The mood is one of longing for the coming of Christ and a new era where justice and peace will prevail.

Lest this all begins to feel a bit heavy, Gaudete Sunday comes along just in time to lighten things. We are encouraged to bring some celebration into this season of hopeful longing. The candle on our Advent Wreath, as well the vestments and hangings, are rose coloured, evoking in the midst of winter the colours and warmth of summer.

The message of Gaudete Sunday is this: that while there are always challenges facing us, concerns that worry us, or troubles that dog us we mustn't forget to be thankful. Gaudete Sunday reminds us to weave gratitude into whatever we are going through in life.

The apostle Paul wrote to the early church in Thessalonica, ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.’ (1 Thessalonians 5.16-19)

However we relate to God in our daily life, whatever our practise and habit of prayer, giving thanks must be the foundation of it. This is how we nurture the Spirit of God within us, and keep ourselves ready to do the work of Christ.

If we are constantly grumbling, or the only time we pray is to ask God for something, then it becomes harder to maintain a spirituality that sustains us. Prayer becomes self-serving: all about me and not much about God, other than as a divine Santa Claus to fulfil my wishes provided I've been good. But when our prayers begin in thanksgiving we reorientate our minds towards the love that God pours on us. We count our blessings and reframe how we see our lives. There is something about being in a thankful state of mind that is motivating and energising.

Practising gratitude is a key strand of Christian Spirituality, and indeed of many other faiths. Psychologists tell us that practising gratitude is good for our health and wellbeing, as well as for our relationships. Why wouldn't it be? Being around joyful people is so much better for us than listening to those who constantly carp and complain.

For us, our prayers of thanksgiving are a way of joining in with the eternal song of praise, adding our chorus to the heavenly hosts. This is how we weave earthly living into eternal life.

How, then, do we follow Paul's instruction to pray without ceasing? Christians have developed a number of approaches to this, but I want to highlight just one.

500 years ago St Ignatius of Loyola developed a set of spiritual exercises that have, over the centuries, helped many Christians deepen their relationship with God.

One such exercise is called the Examen, a contemplative practice for use morning and evening. And it starts with gratitude.
‘You recall the good things that happened to you during the day, and you give thanks for any “benefits”... Ignatius meant “benefits” in the broadest possible sense. Obvious things would include any good news, a tender moment with a [loved one], finishing an important project at work. But also less obvious things: the surprising sight of sunlight on the pavement in the middle of a bleak midwinter's day, the taste of a ham-and-cheese sandwich you had for lunch, satisfaction at the end of a tiring day spent caring for your children. For Ignatius many things—no matter how seemingly inconsequential—are occasions for gratitude. You recall them and you “relish” or “savour” them, as he would say.’ [James Martin SJ, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Harper Collins 2010]

This conscious effort to acknowledge our daily benefits before God, can have a very powerful effect. When I practise the Examen I find myself looking out for things in the course of the day that I can bring to mind later. It becomes a kind of unceasing prayer. And it is a very powerful antidote to my usual habit of stock-taking all the little irritations and hiccups that one encounters in the day. In the same way that grumbling about life's little difficulties inflates and makes us more aware and obsessed with them, practising gratitude begins to build a continual awareness of all goodness and love of which God is the source. The light of Christ within us blazes more brightly. It is the very opposite of the Spirit being quenched.

Paul's advice to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances wasn't directed at individuals. He was writing to a church to instruct them on their life together as a community of faith.
‘They are all to rejoice. And when? Not at a particular time, nor only in good times, but always. They are to pray always. They are to give thanks not just for the good things that happen to them, but “in all circumstances.”’ [Lucy Lind Hogan,]

Recognising that some things in life bring us desolation rather than consolation—not least the mistakes we've made or the moments where we let ourselves down—is also part of the Examen. But it always begins with seeking God's grace and practising gratitude.

We do this in our worship, of course. The celebration of Holy Communion is one great act, no just of remembrance, but of thanksgiving to God for the reconciliation brought to us through the cross of Christ.

But I don't believe for a moment that Paul was thinking about formal services of worship when he instructed the Thessalonians to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances. This is for all our common life together. The conversations we have over coffee after church; the deliberations of our meetings; the way we work together to organise events and activities. Our conduct should be conditioned by ceaseless gratitude rather than endless grumbling.

Like us, the church in Thessalonica had their worries. But Paul does not want their collective life together to be shaped by their anxiety, but rather a commonly held spirit of thanksgiving to God for all the goodness and love that they receive. So too, us. Paul's words ring down through the centuries as true and as clear as the day he wrote them, for it is a message we need to hold onto now as much as ever.

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’

For a description on how to use the Examen click here
For a simple book about the Examen try Sleeping With Bread by Linn, Linn & Linn.

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