At the end of April, I had the privilege of co-leading, with my dear friend Susan Forshey, the women’s retreat at my church, Bethany Presbyterian. The retreat was called “The Unforced Rhythms of Grace,” and we focused on living a contemplative life in the midst of a connected culture.
Each Tuesday for the next six weeks, I will be posting excerpts from the talks I gave at the retreat. Today’s post is the second installment of my morning talk, “Medusa Has a Headache: How Gratitude Changes Everything.” (If you missed it, you can read part one of this talk first.)
The practice that has most helped me grow in contemplative attention is gratitude.
Shortly after my daughter was born—she’s five now—I started being grateful for my life. To this day, I’m not altogether sure what happened to effect this change. And I do mean change. To understand how radical a shift of perspective this was for me, you need to be introduced to a few rather embarrassing pieces of my past.
I have always been a sort of wannabe tragic romantic. You remember Anne of Green Gables, when she first came to Green Gables, how she thought fainting would be romantic, or almost drowning would be romantic? I was that child, that teenager, that young adult—and by young adult, I mean that was me well into my 20’s, almost into my 30’s.
I focused on the difficulty of my life because trial and tribulation somehow seemed to me better, more romantic, even more godly than laughter and ease.
Now, once I hit my mid-20’s I became self-aware enough to realize that my tragic romantic leanings were a bit, well, silly, especially given how good my life was. I mean, I could have been born in a refugee camp or to alcoholic parents or in an impoverished and at-risk community. Instead, I had this pretty sweet upper-middle-class life, a white girl in a society that favors white girls. I really couldn’t claim that a whole lot in my life was hard.
In fact, if I was really honest, I started to have a sneaking suspicion that I have one of the best lives in human history—I mean, kings of the middle ages didn’t have access to the kind of food and furniture, let alone the health care and technology, that I take for granted on a daily basis.
But old habits die hard, if they die at all.
So after realizing that my life really hadn’t been as hard as I’d often made it out to be, I responded with my habitual tragic romantic response: woe is me! I am a sinner! A blind and impoverished excuse for a human being! An ingrate! The spawn of that greatest of ingrates, Lucifer himself!
But as I said, a few years ago, sometime after Jane was born, something started shifting. Maybe it was simply that I was in my 30’s now and finally reaching some semblance of maturity. Maybe it was that I realized that my kids would model their behavior on mine, and that rightly scared me. Maybe it was a long slow process that the Holy Spirit had been working out and I finally clued in.
Whatever it was, I slowly began to feel grateful for my life, to recognize it for the gift it is.
So when I discovered Ann Voskamp’s blog, A Holy Experience, I was ready to receive her words. Ann’s big thing is gratitude. She challenges her blog readers to list 1000 gifts that God has already given them. She further challenges them to make the list in two or three months.
I was game.
In December 2009, right around the time I found out I was pregnant again, with a baby I wasn’t sure I wanted, I started keeping a list.
I am still keeping that list. I’m up in the 2500’s now. I’ve slacked off writing them down as often as I did at first, but the habit of gratitude has taken hold of me. Even when I don’t write the gifts down, I am noticing them and breathing a short prayer of thanks to God.
And that’s where I want to focus for a few moments. Simply on noticing.
I think we sometimes think that contemplation is this pie-in-the-sky thing that monks or the dalai lama engage in, but it’s too ethereal for the likes of us. At least for me, contemplation conjures up images of yogis sitting for hours in lotus position, the only movement of their bodies the slight in-out motion of their chests as they breathe.
Or monks gathering for vigil at 2 a.m. and praying through the night. On their knees. On a cold stone floor.
Always, contemplation connotes stillness and quietness. And in my life, stillness and quietness are almost non-existent.
Does this mean I am doomed to live an uncomtemplative existence until my kids are in college?
I used to think so. I used to get very frustrated that I didn’t have quiet space in my life to contemplate. And this was back when Jack was my only child!
But what I’ve come to realize over the past few years is that contemplation doesn’t require silence or stillness. Those things are great and important and I’d sure like more of them in my life, but they’re not requisite for me to live a contemplative life.
All that is required for a contemplative life is contemplation. (How’s that for a nice circular statement?)
And all contemplation is, really, is paying attention. It’s noticing the grace in the present moment. Or the pain. And bringing both before God.
So when I walk past a pink hyacinth in my neighbor’s yard and see that it is turned translucent by the morning sun and inhale a sharp “OH!” because it is so beautiful, I am engaged in contemplation.
I use that word “engaged” very deliberately. Contemplation requires engagement. We cannot contemplate if we are not here. To be able to contemplate the hyacinth and the sunlight, I have to notice them. I cannot walk blindly by. I must be present to the moment, present to the hyacinth and the sunlight.
Keeping a gratitude journal—a gift list—has helped me learn to see the little gifts God gives me each day, each hour. Before, I likely would have walked right past most of these gifts. Now, I see more of them.
And because I’m seeing for the purpose of giving thanks, my seeing is linked to praise, is turned Godward with a breath of thanksgiving.