9. On Poverty and Gratitude

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There are times in my life when the confluence of thoughts and ideas and voices that I encounter align too perfectly to be random; when those concepts lead from one to another helping me to connect the dots as surely as these patches of light on my grandmother’s old rug are not formed by happenstance but by the sun passing through the folds of the curtain. And it is then that I clearly see the influence of the Holy Spirit at work.

Today was one of those times. The Gospel for Mass this morning was Matthew 19:16-22 in which Jesus tells the rich young man that if he wishes to gain eternal life, he should go, sell what he had, and give it to the poor. I’ve heard this Gospel preached many times, as I’m sure have most who might read this, and usually in the context of almsgiving. But today Father took it in a different direction. He encouraged us to think about it as not giving up all worldly things but as renouncing whatever it is that we love more than God.

And suddenly, I was struck by something. Perhaps it is because I just celebrated my two year consecration anniversary on the Feast of the Assumption last Saturday, but I remembered what had drawn me to Marian consecration in the first place when I initially learned about it. Rather than quote directly, I will paraphrase to capture the essence of what spoke to me.

In consecrating oneself to Jesus through Mary, one willingly relinquishes all merits, graces, and spiritual gifts, and returns them to Mary to distribute as she sees most fit, so that at the hour of your death, you are in a state of complete spiritual poverty and trusting abandonment to the love of Christ, the will of God, and her maternal care for you.

What I knew then on some instinctual level was that anything I grasp at, anything I struggle to keep close, I corrupt. And yet being human, my tendency, always, is to want to close my hands around things and say “mine!” My desire to consecrate myself in this way was with the hope that Mary would slowly teach me to unclench my fists and open my heart.

What I wondered this morning, with this Gospel and Father’s different explication of it juxtaposed so closely with my renewal of my vows, is if this very act of consecration has been a way to do what the rich young man in the parable could not do. Could willingly giving up all spiritual gifts be in itself a form of voluntary poverty? A poverty not of rejecting material wealth, but instead of choosing to relinquish those last things to which we cling; treasures we try to build up for ourselves not in this world but in the next?

I know it is not something I could ever do. But I know it is possible, because Mary can, and to the extent I give her permission, I can see that she is doing that within me. How do I know? Because as I grow in poverty, so also the space in my heart for gratitude increases.

If you really want to say thank you, you must first understand, you possess nothing.

When I began this blog, I chose the subtitle ‘radical gratitude’ without really understanding why. I suppose it was because I got frequent feedback that there was something ‘different’ about my outlook on life. What I have come to understand is that even gratitude itself is a gift, meant to be used in the service of others.

My part in this story is incidental, really, other than to stand and be amazed at the privilege of watching this interaction with Jesus, Mary, and the Holy Spirit unfold in my life. I write not to call attention to myself but to offer praise to God. If anything I have said prompts questions or if I can pray for you in any way, I am always listening.

8. Out of Place

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When we were on vacation at Presque Isle this summer, we rounded the corner on a particularly deserted stretch of beach to find this driftwood sculpture built by previous beach goers. No other humans were in sight. I was captivated by it – in the midst of this wildness and all this beauty was this strange and awkward thing which surely did not belong here. I could not look away as I realized nearly my entire life I have felt like that driftwood sculpture on the beach.

My life has always been about discontent; about a sense of being mismatched with place; about an inchoate desire for what I could not name.

For many years that sense of vagrancy found expression in a passion for poetry, and I’m sure I will always be a lover of language. But it wasn’t until I discovered St. Augustine’s Confessions and his assertion that “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You” that I realized the reason I have always felt out of place is that Earth is not my home. I am only a sojourner here.

How freeing! No longer do I expect earthly pleasures to take away that ache for the eternal. Now that I no longer ask them to do the impossible, each moment here, taken just for itself,  is so full of sweetness. I sometimes feel I cannot contain the joy.

7. Simple Sundays 

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For all the pleasures of late summer when everything is full of fire and rounding to fruition and for all the poets who have given voice to my dreams

For Queen Anne’s lace and locust songs and the smell of freshly tarred roads

For unscheduled Sunday afternoons 

For dishes to wash and the family who dirties them

For cats who are momentarily at peace

For reconciliation and hope and new beginnings 

Dear God, make me truly grateful.

6. The YES that binds

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Many of my Catholic friends know of my devotion to Mother Mary – in two weeks on the Feast of the Assumption I’ll celebrate two years of consecration to her. But it was specifically in meditating on her fiat, her yes to God, that I finally began to understand how I could actually live St. Paul’s threefold directive to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all things.

Mother Mary’s yes was perfect and total and perfectly conformed to the will of God and therefore perfectly fruitful. Because of her perfect fiat she was able to do something that no human has done before or since. It made me start thinking about the power of even an imperfect yes.

As I’ve already discussed, I had tried on my own to live St. Paul’s advice. I could only get so far and then ran into frustration. Yet I trusted that if it was recorded in Scripture, it must be possible. So where was the key?

The first inkling I had was when I asked the Holy Spirit to come and pray in and with and through me in all the ways I could not pray on my own, and saw my prayer life grow exponentially beyond my wildest dreams. I then thought about how when Jesus introduced the Holy Spirit to His disciples, He used the term ‘Advocate.’ A helper.

And I realized: I cannot rejoice always, but the Holy Spirit can. I cannot pray without ceasing, but the Holy Spirit is constant prayer. I don’t know how to give thanks in all things, but the Holy Spirit does and only waits for my permission, for my yes, for my fiat, to do all those things in and through me.

And it is true, my yes is very imperfect. But it is also true that even the tiniest yes is enough to open the door, and as long as that yes is not withdrawn, the Spirit can then work from within to refine it over time.

I know this blog is supposed to be about radical gratitude, and I haven’t talked much about that yet. But I felt that I needed to lay the groundwork to explain my mindset first. For those of you who have read along so far, I thank you so very much for your patience.

5. Never cease from praying

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As I’ve mentioned, for a long time I ignored St. Paul’s exhortation to pray without ceasing because it seemed that it must only apply to those far more advanced in holiness than I am. In fact, it seemed prideful even to try – as if I was claiming something I knew in fact not to be true.

And yet, I couldn’t let go of the fact that St. Paul did not say that constant prayer was just for a few. So finally I acknowledged that I needed to begin, even though I felt as lost in the fog as the tree in this picture.

My prayer was, and is, very simple.

Please Jesus, enclose my heart in Your Sacred Heart and keep it safely there whether or not You choose to make me aware of that union.

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Please Holy Spirit, come pray in and with and through me in all the ways I cannot pray on my own.

And what has happened, gently and slowly and not through MY efforts, is that I have become a person of prayer.

4. Give thanks in ALL things

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Did you notice that I conveniently skipped over the second part of St. Paul’s exhortation to the Christians at Thessalonica – ‘pray without ceasing?’ That’s because it seemed so daunting to me that when I deliberately set out to pattern my life on this verse (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) I skipped it at first. I rationalized that only very advanced and holy people could pray all the time so I certainly must be exempt from that, at least for now.

Instead, I began to think about what it might mean to give thanks in all things. I considered myself a grateful person to begin with – I like writing thank you notes more than any adult I know, and as a Thanksgiving baby I’ve been teased about being the poster child for gratitude. How should I begin to step up my game from there?

I tried gratitude lists – counting my blessings literally, by writing them down and enumerating them. I tried a ‘gratitude a day’ post for a while. Eventually, I realized that my gratitude had a prosperity-gospel-esque spin to it. I was thanking God much more than ever before, but I was thanking Him for things I considered to be good things.

Clearly St. Paul had a broader definition of gratitude for he enjoins that we should give thanks in ALL things. Realizing that, I began to seek out ways to give thanks for those less desirable elements of my life. What I found was that if I simply attempted to say thank you, the exercise seemed stilted and artificial.

Dear God, thank you for putting Person X in my life, even though they get under my skin and irritate me endlessly, I’m sure You know what You are doing and this is good for me…

It quickly devolved into resentment.

However, when I began to not simply give thanks, but enter into a dialogue with God, then I could feel myself being changed – opened up – by the process.

Dear God, thank you for putting Person X in my life. This relationship feels challenging to me right now, but I trust that You have good things planned for both of us. Please Jesus give me Your eyes so I may see Person X that way You see them. Please Holy Spirit enter my heart and help me to give thanks even in the midst of my hurt and confusion. Even when I don’t see anything praiseworthy in the situation, I know that You are with me and for that in itself I give thanks.

It started to sound a lot like prayer.

Perhaps St. Paul was onto something after all.

3. Is Joy a Habit?

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Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

I have cited this passage as my favorite for as long as I can remember, and claimed it as my personal road map. When I became Catholic a friend had it engraved on a plaque for me which hangs in my kitchen. I still read it daily. And yet, I have barely begun to plumb the depths of the wisdom St. Paul captured in these few sentences.

Rejoice! Be joyful! What does that mean? I’ve had a long standing habit of asking people if they think there’s a difference between happiness and joy. What I have learned over the years is that people pretty universally draw a distinction between two states of being. One is more short term and situational – for example, the pleasurable sensation you might experience after eating a delicious meal. The other is more deep seated and enduring. It seems similar to contentment but goes beyond that to incorporate themes of connection and to fulfilling one’s purpose.

The interesting thing to me is that while people understand the distinction, they are split about which term denotes which state. For some, happiness is stable and joy is ephemeral, while for others joy is the solid bedrock upon which you can build, while happiness is fleeting.

It seems obvious to me that St. Paul was not referring to the situational state since he exhorts us to rejoice always. So taking this verse as my road map, I decided to become serious about the act of intentionally cultivating joy in my life. As I joked at the time, “If I want to be a joyful old lady someday, I had better start practicing now.”

Thus the #JoyIsAHabit hashtag was born. I started paying attention to moments when I felt like I was living in great congruence with my vocation and purpose, noticing the peace-contentment-amen feeling that accompanied those moments, snapping photos, and sharing them on Facebook so I could go back and view them on days when I needed a boost. I never expected them to get the response there that they got (and still often get) and that reaction showed me how much people hunger for joy in their lives.

So, has it worked? Yes and no.

Yes, in that just as you improve any exercise with repetition, I have flexed my joy muscles enough that the pause to recognize moments of joy has truly become habitual.

Yes also in a surprising way – if that feeling that accompanies those moments of living in accord with my vocation is absent in a new endeavor, that becomes a useful tool for discernment.

But ultimately, no. Worthwhile and valid though this practice is (and I don’t plan to stop) I have come to realize that I can’t manufacture joy. If St. Paul calls us to be joyful always then there is something more.

Please stay with me – in the next two posts I’ll discuss my attempts to practice, or avoid, the other two exhortations in this verse, and then I’ll talk about what I have found that ties the three together and my current level of understanding (although I’m sure there’s more to come.)

Then I think I’ll finally be ready to dig into an ongoing discussion of what it means to live a life of radical gratitude.

Your thoughts and responses are always welcome.