On giving thanks

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“The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural cure for suffering, but a supernatural use of it.”

Simone Weil (1909 – 1943)

“In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)


What is the point of having a relationship with anyone? I assume that by adding a friend, a wife, a husband to their lives humans grow from their primal oneness into something else yet unknown. I often think of the stages we go through from the womb to the grave. A little wiggling thing meets a stationary egg in some intersection of space, time, Joe, and Peggy and the ball gets rolling. One cell soon is turned into two, three, and one day there will be 100 billion of them, and a carefully organized army of tiny workers holding fast to life in the mystery of what we so casually call “a body.” That body will be born and kept in the arms of a mother for a while, the limited universe of the womb is abandoned, the experience will not even be remembered. There in her arms we will get to know that there are others: Father and siblings and we gradually arrived to the idea that we are a person, a soul different from Mom. As we live on the circle expands and we get to know the extended family, our tribe, our nation, and one day we learn that there are millions like us, each one a unique soul that will never be repeated. As we awake to circle after circle of new relationships those who grow wise wonder what is next.

Nicodemus

One thinking man of antiquity thought he knew what was next for him. He went about life taking good care of his relationships; most likely he was a good son, a good father, a good Jew. Then something unusual happened, a man appeared in the region doing unusual things: restoring people to sanity, resurrecting the dead, talking with a strange authority about difficult things with a mix of simple common sense and severity, kindness and profound wisdom. Nicodemus, our right thinking man, wanted to know that prophet. He wanted to ask him a few questions, so he went, under cover of darkness to a meeting that would change his life forever.

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” John 3:1-10

Hello darkness, my old friend

Nicodemus approached  the house where Jesus was waiting for him. Protected by night he was again unwittingly in the friendly darkness of the womb. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” said Nicodemus to break the ice. In that simple phrase he acknowledged the man as a teacher by addressing Him as “Rabbi.” Then Nicodemus added, “You are a teacher that has come from God” because it was obvious that some kind of benevolent and immense power was behind the miracles performed by Jesus.

Now Nicodemus was a member of the highest religious body of the nation of Israel at the time. He believed firmly in the  promise made by God to Israel that one day a great kingdom was going to be established forever for the benefit of mankind. Nicodemus wondered if this man who was doing extraordinary things was meant to bring that promise to fulfillment. Wise Nicodemus did not miss the signs, he knew that goodness is ordered to itself and good comes from good, and bad comes from bad. Jesus had to be a sign of a greater good giving impulse to all those marvelous, merciful words and deeds: “Rabbi, you must come from God.”

Then the man read Nicodemus’ mind and answered his first question before it was even uttered. In other words Jesus was saying: “I know you are expecting a kingdom…” and revealed the way to reach that kingdom: one has to break out of the womb of darkness and be born yet into another circle, like a baby again, unafraid into the arms of a different mother, leaving behind all the comfortable, familiar, warm and known for the unknown territories outside the present experience. So this new dimension was revealed to Nicodemus, something so unimaginable as the bosom of his loving mother was to him when he was still in her womb. This new dimension of the spirit was placed before him and so he began to be born one more time into the unknown.

A healthy relationship

So, what is the point of having a relationship with anyone? To be able to freely say yes or no. Nicodemus and his brother Pharisees saw with their very eyes all the things Jesus did in their midst. The Pharisees said “no,” Nicodemus said, “yes, let me see more of this.” Now let us see the Pharisees as representatives of the will of the nation. They used their position of authority to reject this “advance of God” seeking them and saying “let us talk, look here, miracles … come closer!” they simply said “no” like naughty children that don’t want to play. Nicodemus was otherwise disposed and went to meet the mysterious teacher that night. His life was changed forever.

We all go through the same experience as God offers His friendship to us. We can say yes or no. Often an individual will answer negatively, basically running God out of his life. That has consequences because, as Nicodemus knew very well, “goodness is ordered to itself “ and good comes from other good things, often bigger things. If we consider God the ultimate source of goodness then the benevolent works of Jesus were like a trail of crumbs the ants follow all the way to the picnic table.

Here we leave Nicodemus and concentrate on his brother Pharisees who decided not to follow the trail to Jesus. There are consequences when we act like them, purposely ignoring God as He knocks on our door. First of all we miss the opportunity to be born into the next dimension of our life. We stay in the womb until we disastrously burst it. That is what happened to the Pharisees and to the nation that rejected Jesus. A new era was upon them but they clung to the past until the whole thing exploded: in 70 a. C. the Romans came, the nation was conquered and led into slavery. Christians instead went to change the world, conquer Rome with spiritual weapons, and saved the ancient world from utter ruin. Pharisees took a step towards Hell while the followers of Christ took a step towards Heaven. Something new was born form above.

This story help us to see why sometimes God decides to let us get into trouble so we can experience the fruits of our foolishness and the sweet experience of being rescued by Him. Why! Why doesn’t He just help us avoid the trouble so He does not have to rescue us at all? Wouldn’t that be more practical? Well, perhaps but for some reason He let us experience the pain resulting from trying to live without Him. “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” [1] God has created us to be His but He also created us to be happy and free. He cannot be a despot in control of all our choices, even if that is for our own good. The point is that God wants to have a relationship with us, a serious relationship between two free entities. Because He is the source of all that is good, and He created goodness to be something ordered after Himself; when we decide to leave God to any degree, we leave behind a proportional degree of goodness and then a proportional degree of bad stuff creeps into our lives. That is the way things are since the day our father Adam had the great idea of declaring independence from his Creator. Not the brightest thing ever done!

Giving thanks

Some may remember that Latin phrase from the Exultet we hear during Easter: O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere Redemptorem, “O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer.” That phrase is referring to the error, the fault of Adam, or original sin. That is a rather complex thing to explain so we will examine it some other time. What is important now is the counterpoint contained in the phrase: the fault of Adam is considered a happy blessing because it turned out to be the main reason why God appeared in the world as the Redeemer of the human race. In a prosaic comparison the whole thing is like blessing uncomfortable shoes because of the pleasure that results from taking them off! Adam decided to do things his way. In the process the whole planet somehow went out of whack. God could have walked away but instead He decided to allow some time so that Adam and his offspring could experience the consequences of Adam’s fault. We are still living inside that “learning experience.” The Exultet teaches us that all bad things we experience in life —which by the way are all direct or indirect consequences of Adam’s bad choice— have a good side: they are places of encounter with God who is ready to redeem us after we have learned the lesson and before the “learning experience” kills us.

That is one of the important teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a Jewish teacher who lived in the 18th century.

“He urged everyone to seek out his own and others’ good points in order to approach life in a state of continual happiness. If one cannot find any “good points” in oneself, let him search his deeds. If he finds that his deeds were driven by ulterior motives or improper thoughts, let him search for the positive aspects within them. And if he cannot find any good points, he should at least be happy that he is a Jew. This “good point” is God’s doing, not his. He placed great stress on living with faith, simplicity, and joy. He encouraged his followers to clap, sing and dance during or after their prayers, bringing them to a closer relationship with God. He frequently recited extemporaneous prayers. He taught that his followers should spend an hour alone each day, talking aloud to God in his or her own words, as if “talking to a good friend.” This is in addition to the prayers in the siddur. Breslover Hasidim still follow this practice today, which is known as hitbodedut (literally, “to make oneself be in solitude”). Rebbe Nachman taught that the best place to do hitbodedut was in a field or forest, among the natural works of God’s creation.” [2]

One of his followers, Rabbi Shalom Arush, is the author of a great book The Garden of Gratitude there he “explains how to make a quantum leap in your personal and spiritual growth – through gratefulness. The attribute of gratitude is a prerequisite to true happiness and success in all of our interpersonal relations, especially marriage. If life seems to be like a brick wall or a dead end, then learning to give thanks is the key to a new tomorrow. Gratitude invokes miracles!”[3] There he basically develops the idea that if we really have faith in God, if we really believe in Him, we have to believe also that everything that God allows to happen, even bad things, are permitted for a good reason and will ultimately work out for our benefit.

That sounds a lot like the Christian teaching found in Romans 8:28-30:

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

Funny that “all things” good and bad are passed through the cosmic factory and end up in the best of places: being recreated in the image of the Son of God, being made into a just person and ultimately achieving the big prize of being glorified. From various awful experiences God brings up purification and glory. Not too bad!

The secret seems to reside in taking all of that pain with a smile. St James says:

“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind.” James 1:2-8.

It is fine to ask in faith for good things but perhaps the highest level of faith is being grateful for bad experiences in the belief that they have a silver lining, a teaching, or some other quality that will work for the believer’s benefit.

That line of thinking uncovers a very powerful truth. In this world we will experience suffering, some of that suffering will come from our own mistakes. Inevitably that suffering will fall under the control of God Himself. He will turn it into a lesson that will have a redemptive effect but the most important thing to be learned is that redemption is effected by a Redeemer, and that Redeemer is God Himself. He meets us right there in the very place of our suffering. Mysteriously, to those He loves the most He gives the choicest splinters of the Cross – where He freely chose to experience suffering for our benefit. O felix culpa! Our sufferings are places where we can meet God.

So when we express our gratitude for the suffering in our lives we accelerate the process of redemption by believing. It is like saying: “God, I know you are here with me in this awful experience. Help me understand the lesson You want me to learn so I can be grateful for that also.”

It is good to have the habit of giving thanks for everything: for joy and suffering alike. It is healthy for our soul to offer one hour of our day in solitude, going to encounter God meeting Him like a good friend. Once we find a place where we will not be interrupted by phones, chores or any other nuisance, it is good to offer that sacrifice of thanksgiving even if it is hard for us to feel it in our hearts. In time we will feel its power but first we must show that we believe. This practice can be a portal to heavenly grace and a source of many miracles.

“On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked Him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’” Luke 17:11-19.

 “For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’” Romans 4:3


[1] “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 93).

[2] Wikipedia, Nachman of Breslov.

[3] The Garden of Gratitude. Paperback edition. 2005 by Shalom Arush

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