Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash
To whom ought we to give ourselves if not to the One from whom we have received everything. … This thought and the gratitude we owe him for all his goodness to us ought to have
frequently occupied our minds and touched our hearts during this year.
– St. John Baptist de La Salle
Have you ever noticed that the most grateful people we know are those with little apparent reason for being so? Those who give, give, and give – like Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier, and many silently busy unknown saints – have few material things. They do have great gratitude. Compared to those admired in popular culture – sports and movie stars, famous musicians and authors, online personalities, etc. – those with the least obvious advantages possess the greatest ones. Philip Yancey, who has interviewed a wide host of people, divides them into stars and servants. The stars, by and large, he found to be “as miserable a group of people as I have ever met …” But more significantly, “I was prepared to honor and admire the servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not, however, prepared to envy them. But as I now reflect on the two groups side by side, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favored ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, ‘wasting’ their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated. But somehow in the process of losing their lives they have found them. They have received the ‘peace that is not of this world.’”
His experienced conclusion is aligned to what the Gospel proclaims: “The way up is down.”
Teachers are such servants, educating by word, example, and personality. Gospel seeds appear gently but directly, filtered by life experience, reflection, intentionality, and a genuine care for students. How, then, might gratitude be revealed within the focused, organized chaos of daily school life? What are the deeper challenges in education today to developing a real sense of gratitude? Where should we turn our attention in order to “teach” Gospel priorities?
Young people are often energetic, curious, and given to spontaneous outbursts of well-intentioned leaps of purpose-filled activity, and popular expectations, whether in society or personal relationships, are not conducive to lengthy reflection or deep filters, especially when it comes to today’s economic drivers. “Successive echelons of youth mean a perpetual supply of unspoilt ‘virgin land’ ready for cultivation, without which even the simple reproduction of the capitalist economy, not to mention economic growth, would be all but unconceivable. Young people are thought of and paid attention to as ‘yet another market’ to be commodified and exploited.” An economic juggernaut that is powered by personalized Facebook ads, clever social media and gaming advertising strategies, easily becomes a society where early Black Friday deals trump [intentional use] the genuine benefits of a convivial Thanksgiving meal with family and friends. While one might say with genuine gratitude that there are plenty of examples of young people who resist these and similar well-hidden societal forces, there is “a gathering volume of evidence casting ‘the problem of youth’ fairly and squarely as an issue of ‘drilling them into consumers’, and leaving all other youth-related issues on a side shelf, or effacing them altogether from the political, social and cultural agenda.”
This is a large part of the landscape of education today. It is the one within which the gratitude called for by the Gospel is much needed. How? “Isn’t it true that gratitude springs up in our hearts more powerfully, more gloriously when what we receive is undeserved, when it is a miracle of divine and human love?” Turning the eyes of youth toward the miracle of divine and human love – in retreats, in personal encounters, in undeserved forgiveness, in just saying “hello” – is an immediate, real, and powerful agent for change. It is grounded in the conviction that God trusts us to be the love that created us. “How wonderful it would be if out of gratitude we lived in such a way as to give God joy, the joy of knowing that He has not created us in vain, that He does not believe in us in vain, that He has not put His trust in us in vain, that His love has been received, is now incarnate, not only in emotion, but in action!”
At the end of the magical video, Gratitude Revealed, Br. David Steind-Rast, OSB, invites us to notice the blessings that we encounter each day: “I wish that you will open your heart to all these blessings, and let them flow through you, that everyone whom you will meet on this day will be blessed by you, just by your eyes, by your smile, by your touch, just by your presence. Let the gratefulness overflow into blessing all around you.”
Allow me to suggest that the capacity for gratitude itself is one of those blessings, and the more we notice its presence and exercise its agency for grace, the more we and others will find that God’s presence isn’t all that far away. In fact, we yet dwell within its silent, rich abundance.
PDF of this reflection is HERE.