Gratitude as an Essential of Faith

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John Shuck, in answer to the question of what the essentials of his faith, offered this:

I suppose if I had to put something on my list regarding the essentials of faith, I would put near the top, gratitude. It seems that the essence of faith is to be grateful. I am grateful for the cicadas as they crescendo and decrescendo. I am grateful for LS, Boy, Girl, Sister, and the rest of my family and friends, church, oh, you know, all of it. I am grateful for breath. Gratitude for life itself is certainly an essential of faith. If our faith leads to gratitude then I think we can handle pretty much anything.
I was struck by this because I've been thinking lately about gratitude as a religious practice. He has subsequently added compassion to his list of essentials, which I also fully agree with, but I do like that the first one he came up with was gratitude.

I suppose one reason I've been intrigued by the idea of gratitude is that it is such a central element of the theology of grace that is found in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (also known as Shin), and I've been doing some reading on this form of Buddhism lately. Contrary to other forms of Buddhism that rely on the "self power" of monasticism and meditation in order to achieve enlightenment, Jodo Shinshu believes that salvation is available to all by the gift of grace--specifically, the grace of Amida Buddha. This act of grace is known as "other power", and rejects the idea of Buddhists applying any effort of their own ("self power") in order to achieve salvation. Worship consists not of efforts towards enlightenment, but rather of expressions of the so-called nembutsu, words that are offered in a spirit of gratitude for the grace that was given to them.

Alfred Bloom, in his book The Promise of Boundless Compassion, writes of Shinrin, the founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect, noting that "the only basis of religious action for Shinran is the expression of gratitude." He notes further that "for Shinran, gratitude becomes central to religious life, displacing utilitarianism, magic, legalism, and the expectation of egoistic benefits from religion."

Meanwhile, today I picked up a copy of a church newsletter, which contained a dissertation on the subject of prayer. Therein I saw this quote, attributed to Thomas Merton: "If the only prayer you ever say is 'Thank you.' That is enough."

There are many things to say "Thank you" for. In the quote from John's blog above, he presented a wonderful list of things that he is thankful for in his life. I'm sure that each of us has our own, specific items that we would include on our own lists.

From a theological perspective, I think that gratitude is the proper response to Divine grace--to God's unconditional love, regardless of what that means to each of us in terms of "salvation" or an "afterlife." I don't know what will happen to me after I die; all I feel I can do is be thankful for the present day reality of the Divine, of God's unconditional love in the here and now.

One might infer from my earlier posting about how beautiful the universe is that I just happen to have a rather sunny disposition. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I am often cynical, occasionally depressed, frequently resentful, and often outraged. And yet through all of that, I somehow do find myself drawn towards some sense of appreciation for the gift that is life and the beauty that is the world. I find myself uplifted by my sense of the transcendent. I sometimes find myself able to lift my spirits up to God and feel appreciation for having had this chance to live; and even if I regret many of the choices that I've made, I can still thank God for having had the opportunity to have made any choices at all. I consider that there is only a finite number of people who have ever lived, or ever will live--and I happen to be one of them. On the other hand, there is an infinite number of not-people--that is to say, people who don't exist and never did exist, and never will, just potentials for personhood that never had the opportunity to become realized. Out of these infinite possibilities of potential people that I or you or God could conceive of in our imaginations, only a finite number actually come into existence. I made the cut--I was born. It was God's gift of self-emptying and unconditional love that made the world possible--and I got to see it and experience it. And because I didn't die today, I am still able to experience it as I write this.

I know that life is short; and I want so badly to make the most of it. I want to appreciate the moments of beauty that I experience because I know that each moment is too precious not to. I often fail miserably at this endeavor. I don't always appreciate life as much as I should. Mundane concerns and habits of attitude get in the way of these aspirations. But through it all, at some level, especially as I get older and come to appreciate more that my days are numbered, I understand the need for gratitude.

5 comments:

That Neil Guy said...

One of my pastors is fond of saying that we should live our lives as a thank you note to God. I've always liked that notion, even if I often fail to live it.

Andy said...

Tnanks for the thought-provoking post :-)

Unfortunately in our JS tradition gratitude has sometimes been over reified. It's no good simply telling people to feel gratitude of course! The pre-requisite are the two aspects of deep mind ... awakening to oneself as limited, drowning in karma etc. and, on other hand, the working of the Dharma ... all that supports our existence. When these combine to form the one mind of entrusting then gratitude (and practice) flow forth naturally.

Ironically self-power seeking, at the start, is more likely to lead to this situation than a cobbled together idealised pseudo-gratitude. The latter being a problem that I often encounter in religious circles.

Jan said...

Thank you. Ever heard of David Steindl-Rast, a somewhat Buddhist Catholic priest, who wrote "Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer"? He also has a website entitled gratefulness.org.

Mystical Seeker said...

Jan, I haven't heard of him. I'll have to check out his web site.

Matthew said...

I think there may be a difference between appreciation and gratitude.