I’m building a little workshop in our backyard. (The strange rolling sound you hear is coming from the eyeballs of the Calvary staff, who’ve endured weekly shop updates for a while now and have even feigned interest on occasion.) On Monday afternoon, thunder rumbled in the distance as I nailed off the last ridge shingle. And as soon as I got to the bottom of the ladder and took off my tool belt, it started to rain. What would you say if I told you I felt grateful to God for that moment … deeply grateful?
Is it strange to say that I felt gratitude to God?
According to one understanding of gratitude, accompanied by a certain understanding of prayer, it certainly is. If my gratefulness was because I’d been praying fervently that the Lord alter weather patterns in western Tennessee for my sake and that God heard my plea and did precisely what I asked … well … that would be worse than strange. I mean, if God is tending to my sense of satisfaction but hasn’t quite gotten around to halting the war in Ukraine or putting an end to gun violence, God is either cruel or far too easily distracted to be trusted with ordering the universe.
A common reaction to such a view of things is to decide that God does not intervene in our lives at all and that prayer should not be about asking God to change the course of things on earth. This is what I believed for many years once I decided God was probably never going to get around to healing my mother’s multiple sclerosis.
But a Benedictine monk named David Stendl-Rast changed my understanding of prayer by changing my understanding of gratitude. And those two changes changed my conception of God.
David Stendl-Rast was born Franz Kuno Steindl-Rast in 1926, in Vienna, Austria. He spent his teen years under Nazi occupation and was drafted into the army but never went to the front lines. He eventually escaped and was hidden by his mother until the occupation ended. So, Br. David is not someone who has been insulated from the world’s awfulness, which makes his views on gratitude and happiness all the more credible to me.
He says that most of us assume that we are grateful because we are happy. But the truth is that we are happy because we are grateful.
This may sound like a distinction without a difference. Who cares which comes first, the gratefulness or the happiness, as long as we experience them? Well, if you believe one must be happy to become grateful, this usually means I think I need to find myself in a happy situation if I’m to be grateful. Maybe you unexpectedly gave me a gift card to my favorite coffee shop, which makes me happy, which makes me grateful. That’s nice, as far as it goes. But, if it was my birthday, and I somehow got it into my head that you were going to give me the thickness planer I’d like to add to my collection of shop tools, only to receive a lousy coffee shop gift card … well, let’s just say my attempt to convey gratitude in such a moment might be less than convincing.
The point here is that gratitude has more to do with the frame of mind or set of expectations I bring to a moment in my life than it does with what that moment actually holds. David Stendl-Rast says this is always the case. Even in the most difficult and painful situations, there is something for which a person can be grateful if only the arrival of one more moment of aliveness. That spark of gratefulness that follows such awareness doesn’t undo or mask the pain, but it can be a little portal through which we might find what we need to survive.
Gratefulness, then, is not a symptom of being in a happy situation. Gratefulness is a practice that can be cultivated and learned, a practice that can lead not just to simple happiness but to deep flourishing, even joy.
David Stendl-Rast’s method is similar to what we teach children about crossing the street: Stop. Look. And go. To cultivate gratitude, we first need to stop and take note of the moment at hand. You didn’t arrange for this moment to arrive. Notice that. And then do something. Act out of the awareness that your life is, most essentially, a gift, even when it is hard. When you do this, gratitude really can begin to grow, not because you’re lucky or clever enough to be in a happy situation. But because you have realized that you didn’t do anything to deserve the gift of being alive.
What does that have to do with my prayer of gratitude when I finished the roof on my workshop as the rain began to fall? Moreover, what does all that have to do with my conception of how God is involved in our lives?
Well, because I’ve come to believe more than ever that the work of our lives is to wake up to them a little more fully each day and to live from the gratitude that can awaken in us when we do. In a grateful mindset, gratitude would have come alive if I’d been sitting at the peak of my shop roof in the pouring rain, drenched to the bone in the miracle of waters returning to the earth from the sky.
And when I see the miracle embedded in the moment at hand, I no longer see God as a cosmic vending machine into which I might drop a quarter in the form of a convincing prayer. God becomes the One who made such a moment possible. The One in whom we live and move and have our being, as the Acts of the Apostles puts it. The One I might even encounter here, at my desk, on a Friday, typing this for you to read if I simply stop. Look. And go.