Everything Is Grace: Cultivating Gratitude From a Greater Altitude

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On Thanksgiving, I had the honor of leading a prayer service at the senior community where I serve as a chaplain. Following is my reflection.

Those of you who attend the dementia support group on Tuesday mornings might recognize the name of Oliver Sacks. He was a British neurologist who penned several bestselling books, mostly collections of case studies, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which later became an opera. 

The New York Times dubbed Sacks “the poet laureate of medicine” for developing and promoting a way of treating patients with neurological disorders as whole persons –with unique strengths and capabilities encompassing mind, body, emotion, and spirit — rather than as defective body parts or diseases. 

For the last nine years of his life, Sacks lived with an ocular melanoma. In the months before his death, when it was evident that the cancer had metastasized and he was dying, he wrote a famous essay for the Times in which he reflected on his life. He wrote: “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts…I cannot pretend that I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.”

To see our lives from a great altitude … with a prominent feeling of gratitude. What a fitting exercise for today.

The Rainforest Within the Dots

Everyday stressors seem to demand an up-close view, where we can lose sight of the whole picture. 

When I was in graduate school, I was working with a mentor on a school project. Every time I came to his office he made me look at a poster he had pinned to his wall.

“Do you see it?” He’d ask me.

“No,” I said. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. All I see is dots.”

Every week we went through this exercise. He had made it his mission to help me see something significant in the midst of dots.

Finally on a slow day toward the end of the project, I determined to see what I had not yet been able to see.

At first all I saw was dots.

I relaxed my eyes. Still more dots.

But then my eyes fell on one cluster of dots, and I saw what looked like the hind feather of a parrot. Then the entire parrot. Then a monkey climbing a tree beside the parrot, an alligator beneath them, and butterflies floating above them.

Suddenly the dots transformed into a beautiful rainforest bursting with color and all kinds of exotic plants and animals.

“Do you see it?” my mentor asked. He was laughing at the look of wonder on my face.

“Yes,” I answered. “Now I see.”

Days like today, when we stop to think about our blessings, assure us that our lives are made up of more than random dots. There is a connection between our relationships, our circumstances—a pattern sewn between our tragedies and our joys—where goodness, truth, and beauty peak through the mess of it all. If we only relax our eyes as much as humanly possible to see it. If we can find a view from a greater altitude.

From Scarcity to Feast

Today’s readings are a reminder that we can’t always go on what we initially see and understand. Our vision, our intellect, our ability to comprehend things are indeed limited. There always exists in situations possibilities and outcomes that we could have never imagined. 

Forty years is a long time to be wondering anywhere. If Moses had my sense of direction, I can see why the Israelites were there for so long. I have always found it intriguing in the Exodus story that the uncertainty that they experienced — of not knowing for sure if God was going to come through with manna for the next day – would at times be so unbearable it would drive them to fantasize about their enslavement in Egypt. Because at least that was predictable. In our first reading, it is written, “And [God] humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” 

In other words, faith needs to take precedence over rationale. Faith in the promise for them that the Lord is in fact bringing them into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranate, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which they will eat a diet of more than just manna—they will eat without scarcity.

In the Gospel there is also a feast that follows scarcity. Five loaves of bread and two fish. Hardly enough to feed a family, let alone of crowd of 5,000. Like the Israelites, Jesus’ disciples are asked to suspend their capacities to reason located in their prefrontal cortex and believe in something that is taking place that defies the laws of nature. This narrative is even more powerful when you consider its placement in scripture—following the beheading of John the Baptist. Jesus could have very easily stayed in a place of loss and grief, isolated in the mountains. Instead he performs a miracle to provide sustenance for his followers, with twelve basketfuls of broken pieces left over to emphasize the formidable agent of faith.

Like the two scripture passages, the story of the pilgrims is its own tapestry of loss and abundance. The feast that took place wasn’t so much of a hoorah for making it across the Atlantic in 1620, as I once understood it to be. It was a thanksgiving to God for their fresh success after enduring a wet, cold winter that led to illness, in which half of the pilgrims died. Their expedition to a new land, like the Exodus passage of the Israelites and the lifestyle of Jesus’ first disciples consisted of difficulties, trials, and setbacks. And yet the pilgrims didn’t stay with the loss. The 50 remaining colonists shared the first Thanksgiving feast with roughly 90 Wampanoag tribesmen, a tradition that we celebrate today.

The Discipline of Gratitude

Spiritual author Henri Nouwen wrote: “Gratitude is not a simple emotion or an obvious attitude. It is a difficult discipline to constantly reclaim my whole past as the concrete way in which God has led me to this moment and is sending me into the future….I am gradually learning that the call to gratitude asks us to say ‘everything is grace.’ When our gratitude for the past is only partial, our hope for a new future can never be full.”

Gratitude is, indeed, a discipline.

I recently met with a resident who is as mentally sharp as she is advanced in age. 

“Everyone says I’m lucky to have my mental faculties intact at my age,” she told me, “but it is its own kind of cross. Sometimes I think a little dementia wouldn’t be such a bad thing. When you have lived as long as I have, there are so many memories that flood your brain. Both the joy and the losses can provoke a kind of sadness. Because I can’t reproduce the happy times. There is a lot of acceptance in not being able to do now what I could then. And the losses … well, they could break my heart if I stay there. What’s important is making the necessary accommodations to move forward each day.”

“What kind of accommodations do you make?” I asked her. “How do you do that?”

“Whenever I start to go to that painful place, I make a pivot to prayer and to thanksgiving. I thank God for my many blessings,” she said. “I am motivated to do this not only because I can’t afford to go down a deep hole, but also because I want to keep friends. No one wants to hear about illness and grief all the time. Not unless you’re a therapist.”

“Or I chaplain,” I added.

“I put you in the same category,” she said. “You’re a type of therapist I don’t have to pay for.”

She makes an important point—right before she said I am a free therapist. While gratitude is an individual discipline, it is also the work of a community—one that I witness every day here.

We are compelled to strive for a balanced perspective. One that allows grief, the acknowledgment of empty spaces and the distance between how we wish things were and how they are. It is healthy to recognize those places of tension in our lives. But we must resist the temptation to be pulled into the quicksand of hopelessness, a picture of random dots, that is blind to any good around us. And when we see our friend or neighbor slipping into a narrow focus – unable to access the wider lens of life where light trickles in – we must try to serve as her peripheral vision and encourage her to sit down with us to a feast of abundance, much like the first colonists hosted, even amidst the losses. 

Humility Precedes Gratitude

I agree with Henri Nouwen. Part of the pivot to gratitude involves humility: getting out of the way, and seeing God’s place in all of it. Gratitude comes more naturally, in my estimation, when we consider ourselves less as the author and creator of our blessings – and more as a recipient of gratuitous gifts from God. Yes, there is sweat and hard work and perseverance involved. But the feast we sit down to enjoy is so much more than the fruits of our own efforts.

Abraham Lincoln underscored this point in the Proclamation of Thanksgiving that was issued in 1863 officially announcing the holiday we celebrate today. After listing several of the blessings that our country enjoyed in that era of civil war, our sixteenth president went on to say, “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are gracious gifts of the Most High God.” The purpose of this holiday, according to his proclamation, is to set aside a day to remember and praise and name that benefactor, a generous and loving God who provides for our every need.

This posture of humility is a necessary component of gratitude, suggests Joan Chittister in the reflection we heard today: “When we bow our heads in gratitude, we acknowledge that the works of God are good. We recognize that we cannot, of ourselves, save ourselves. We proclaim that our existence and all its goods come not from own devices but are part of the works of God. Gratitude is the alleluia to existence, the praise that thunders through the universe as tribute to the ongoing presence of God with us even now.”

It’s the Little Things

This exercise of gratitude and humility inevitably leads to hope, even as it is not obvious at first. 

Most of us in this room, I suspect, have reached a day when our cognition or physical capabilities or coping strategies all fall short of giving us the outcome we desire. It is precisely in that moment that we are invited to jump into the void and let a parachute of faith open and carry us in the winds of the unknown, to place our hope in a loving God that holds us suspended in the air. The process is not unlike what was experienced by the Israelites in the wilderness, the early disciples of Jesus, and the pilgrims. We are asked to trust in something that defies our logic and our reason, something we cannot see or understand, which is why it is so difficult. 

In these moments it is often helpful to focus on the little things.

Based on Oliver Sack’s 1973 book, the Academy-Award winning film “Awakenings” is a fictionalized account of patients in the late 60s who had contracted a few decades earlier encephalitis lethargica, a disease that attacked the brain and left them catatonic. When Dr. Sacks administered a new drug they awakened for a few months before resuming to their motionless state. At the end of the movie, Dr. Malcolm Sayer, played by Robin Williams says: “The human spirit is more powerful than any drug, and that is what needs to be nourished: with work, play, friendship, family. These are the things that matter. This is what we’d forgotten, the simplest things.”

The residents in the health center and in memory care seem to know the importance of the little things.

Two months before she passed a wise woman in the Health Center said to me, “When you get to be my age and look back on your life, it’s the little things that you will be glad you did. They will bring you joy.” 

Not too long after I was leading a prayer service in Memory Care and asked the residents where they found God.

“In music,” said one.

“In nature,” answered another.

“In church,” responded a third.

“What about you?” I asked, directing my question to a resident I knew with a deep spiritual life.

“I have gone out looking for God my entire life,” she explained, “only to realize that he has always been there in the small things.”

On her deathbed, French nun Therese of Lisieux, remarked that “Everything is grace,” a sentiment referenced in the earlier quote by Nouwen. 

If grace is in everything, then potentially every moment in our life can be an opportunity to give thanks. English writer and philosopher G. K. Chesterton once said, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

Yes, everything is grace and God is in the small things. I have found God to be in a spoonful of mushroom soup at the perfect temperature that brings a wide smile to a resident in the Health Center who can’t speak or feed herself. I have found God to be in the song of a robin in the woods just beyond the meditation garden that brings a glimmer of light to the eyes of a resident immersed in grief. 

Those are the moments of grace where I see light break through the darkness and witness the undeniable fingerprint of God, our creator. And they are what restore my perspective and make me more capable of a vision from a greater altitude, one of gratitude—to believe that there is goodness, truth, and beauty in this world despite some definite ugliness, and that there really is a pattern in all the random dots even if we can’t detect it now. There is a tropical rainforest designed by a loving God if we can just relax our eyes enough to see it—and trust that something greater, something awesome, is holding our fragile world together.

That’s what we attempt to see and to celebrate today.

Happy Thanksgiving, dear residents and staff, family and friends. I am grateful for you.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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