On Gratitude

November 10, 2017

November days, gray and calm but full of roses. I am astounded the roses are still here. Mornings, I go to the garden to look, half expecting them to have vanished overnight. They have not left me yet. A paradox of nature—roses in full flush when they should already be winter-buried.

A few weeks ago, I may not have noticed them. But a new daily practice of keeping a gratitude journal has opened my eyes to things like autumn roses, miracles folded into the quiet of my everyday life. On waking, I think of the journal, and what the day will reveal to me, what surprises I will encounter. A sense of adventure underlies the everyday, and beckons me—a call to worship and adore Christ in small but endless ways. Be it through something as small as roses, or as unfathomable as salvation from distress.

It started with a book, and with that book, a challenge to name 1,000 gifts. To learn to live and practice eucharisteo, deep-soul gratitude. And in doing so, perhaps come to know the roots of the word– charis (grace) and chara, joy. I have adored the book’s author, Ann Voskamp, for a couple of years now; her words and teachings have so informed my own journey, I could count her a spiritual mentor, though I do not know her. But I did not read the book expecting a life change. I did not come to it anticipating the miracle. I could not have known to what extent gratitude is a life-healer. And while I will try to articulate my journey to gratitude here, I must preface this all by saying that One Thousand Gifts, the book that inspired it, is the worthier read. I could not more lovingly recommend it for anyone’s walk.

If you had asked months or weeks ago, I would have identified myself as an essentially grateful person. I have known pain, and it has intensified my gratitude. The level of thankfulness I feel for my family, for my work, for my life, often drives me to tears. If some people ask ‘why’ in the face of tragedy—and I count myself among them—I also ask why in the face of these blessings—this incredible largesse. Who am I to have a healthy, mobile body? A family that stands beside me? Eyesight? Education? Access to plentiful food and clean water? Lovely, challenging work and artistic fulfillment? Weeks ago, I would have found the idea of a gratitude journal superfluous, maybe even childish.

But as prone as I am to praise, I am equally prone to fear and distress. As much as I enjoy health, I fear losing it. As much as I cling to faith, I fear being abandoned by God. As freed as I am by beauty and creativity, I tend to get mired by anxiety and fear. I am always forgetting my freedoms and graces. My whole life, I have had deep, indwelling faith. And my whole life, I have had inexplicable, gripping fear. I needed something to anchor me, to keep me on the gratitude side. I needed tools, and practical discipline; a practice powerful enough to quell fear when it surfaces.

I wanted a larger life—a life open to wonder, and God, and possibility. I had experienced faint glimmers of freedom. I wanted more of this—freedom and peace of mind, and freedom to be available to God and others. I wanted to be unbound by fear.  I could use more knowledge of charis, favor, and chara, joy, the indelible kind, that come from relationship with God.

In the keeping of this journal, I found a practice that does more than reveal that I am blessed. It affirms my faith, and God’s presence in my life, 1,000 times and more. I have found that gratitude is the pathway to grace—knowing we are, by faith, favored—and joy, inexplicable joy, which makes life worth living.

I did not know this when I began to write, but I knew the practice couldn’t hurt. So I began to name daily blessings, timid at first. It was effortful work, discipline, for a few days.

Then the floodgates opened. I woke up one morning and was moored by the absence of something—fear. I wanted to praise. There was all this room, this space that anxiety usually takes up. Sometimes, I could hardly get to my journal in time to capture my thoughts. My lists grew longer, more vivid, and piquant. My days grew a little more spacious. It felt childlike in the best way, this looking for roses, looking for blessings. I felt, on the one hand, that I am not a child, not unjaded, and very much in need of this healing work. On the other hand, I was coming to realize that I had the capacity to experience wonder. Feelings that are so much bigger than fear.

I saw grace in the tiny and minute. My list began to take shape, as I wrote

November roses

Puppy basking in morning sun

The desire to write

The ability to dance, with power and grace– gifts of a healthy body.

Window full of trees—red, golden, berried, brilliant

‘Winter’ by Tori Amos, playing at just the right time

Fireside hangs with family & friends. Telling stories, resting, laughing; easy love

Lighting candles, little rituals. Holiness in the everyday

Morning oats, a kind of daily bread; reminder of God’s provisions

Sweet ‘thank you’ text—God loving me through others

Puppy’s teeth, hilariously straight

Classical music, calming the soul

Peony coral charm, perfectly faded

Cinnamon spices in the kitchen—nostalgia, childhood memories, winter closing in

Changing the water in buckets of flowers, giving stems fresh snips, nurturing something outside of myself

Keats’s poetry

Sending off a work project, feeling accomplished

Watching figure skating, just like old days

Waking up with thanksgiving

Feeling rooted in faith

With the fear beginning to dissipate, I could breathe enough to enjoy God’s presence again.

There are little stories behind some of the things I list, serendipities. Take ‘Peony coral charm, perfectly faded.’ I had four peonies leftover from a wedding, and placed them sort of nonchalantly in a vase. Later, as I gathered the peonies to refresh their water, I came across a calligraphy print, resting on the countertop. It was something a friend had given me last year- a print of flowers framing a Bible verse, and four of the flowers are prominent—four coral charm peonies. I am learning this language now, language of grace. It is thrilling, and can become intoxicating. This looking for and naming gifts. This new way of seeing life. This effort to crack the code, if you will, of grace. It sure beats looking for new sources of fear, anxiety, and condemnation.

The list reveals patterns, themes, discoveries. Above all, it reveals how I am loved by God.

God knew that I would be particularly responsive to nature, flowers, art; family, conversation, home; movement, artistry, dance; little rituals and simple moments of being. I find that He uses these things almost every day to calm my heart. And I know that He has a list that is this unique, this intimate, this tailor-made, for each of His children.

In my favorite pages of the book that began it all, Voskamp writes that naming a thing ‘is Edenic.’ *She cites a particularly powerful quote by Alexander Schmemann:

Now, in the Bible a name… reveals the very essence of a thing, or rather its essence as God’s gift…. To name a thing is to manifest the meaning and value God gave it, to know it as coming from God and to know its place and function within the cosmos created by God. To name a thing, in other words, is to bless God for it and in it.*

It is one thing to know, in an abstract way, that I have things to be grateful for. It is another thing to name them, savor them, and lift them to the light of praise. It is another thing to make blessings this tangible.

As I name daily graces, I find that gratitude is building my trust. Look at these reasons, up to a thousand, that I have for trusting my life to a loving God. The root of anxiety may in fact be distrust— suspecting that God will not provide another day, that He will not uphold me this time. But look at this list—look at all the ways He is providing still. The list gives sweet and ample reasons to trust, trust, and relax. And the power of the list only intensifies when I experience hours or days of rumination and anxiety. I look to my journal and find that my blessings have not left, and neither has the Giver of them. I’ve written the most persuasive, touching, and personal argument in favor of faith.

As I read the list, and I feel its essence; it feels like my life, all of its little threads. I write of all the comings and goings of loved ones; conversations and meetings that could, ostensibly, seem trivial (in fact they hold me together). I write of the solace I find in nature, and the fulfillment I find in art. There is the happiness I find in movement and exercise, being in the body.  I have access to these gifts every day—and who am I to deserve them?  There are all these daily rituals that I love, and daily protection and provisions I could hardly deserve. Sometimes I am certain that the list will end, and with it, God’s love. But the next day, I find that I am here, experiencing these same gifts—somehow, sheltered by the same graces. They are unfailing.

When I struggle to find a new thing to add to the list, I think what a miracle it is to simply be—to have hands, feet, ears, eyes; thoughts, dreams, a soul. I walk and think of the privilege— the unbelievable gift– of health and mobility. I write and work, and feel blessed to have the faculties to do so. I can work with my hands or my mind and even more immaterial things, like my heart. “Being here is so much,” writes Rilke, and I am beginning to know this, in a real and intimate way.

As I name daily gifts, I recognize these gifts as coming from God, and I am inclined to praise. It’s difficult to feel grateful and anxious at the same time. Dwelling on the beauty and grace of the everyday, I heal more of my troubles than when I try to fight those things directly. My thoughts and my experience are lifted to a higher plane.

Today, I write:

Clear and focused mind

A new flush of roses

After an anxious night of fitful sleep—waking to the realization that hope comes in the morning. Every morning.

Puppy to greet me with kisses.

A beautiful and diligent hour of dance

Cleaning and tidying my space– refreshed energy.

A good writing session

A kind text

A work studio filled with my music, my flower supplies, spreadsheets, sketches, and photos of upcoming projects.

Family that offers their love, wisdom, practical and prayerful advice.

Access to healthy food.

Feeling incomplete and incapable—an opportunity to depend upon God’s strength.

Ideas for new projects

The knowledge that I am safe, and loved.

The absence of unhealthy relationships.

The presence of the living God.

Looking it over, I think that maybe my anxieties, fears, rumination, and self-condemnation is a lie, an illusion. This list is in fact my reality. My blessed reality, if only I allow myself to relax into it, trust it. Our lives—these very lives—are better and richer than we comprehend. The blessing is not in the getting to some accomplishment, some relationship, or some physical place. It’s in being here, fully here, and making a prayer of this life, and not another. There’s nothing to wait for. There are enough miracles today, though surely there are trials, and pain runs deep. Something—Someone—sweeter prevails. Every day and again and again.

I highly encourage everyone to read and practice the lessons of Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, a beautiful companion to daily Scripture. Thanksgiving is a condition of the heart, not just a calendar date. It’s a beautiful and timely lesson to embrace now and carry beyond, throughout the rest of the year, the life.

* Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 53.

* Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), 15.









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