Living in the House Named ‘Gratitude’

This week I am thinking about gratitude and about the importance of saying thank you to strangers, particularly to those around we so easily take for granted-- friends and family. I don’t know about you, but the dreary, cold rains of February can put a real damper on feeling “thankful.” But so can a terminal illness. And yet fortunately there are many voices who, out of their personal experience, call to mind what is really important in life. People like writer and neurologist Oliver Sachs who, when faced with his own terminal cancer, chose to spend his remaining days writing a book called Gratitude. Taking note of a beautiful day, he wrote:

 “At nearly 80, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive — ‘I’m glad I’m not dead!’ sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect. (This is in contrast to a story I heard from a friend who, walking with Samuel Beckett in Paris on a perfect spring morning, said to him, ‘Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?’ to which Beckett answered, ‘I wouldn’t go as far as that.’) I am grateful that I have experienced many things — some wonderful, some horrible — and that I have been able to write a dozen books, to receive innumerable letters from friends, colleagues, and readers, and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called ‘an intercourse with the world.’  The years do teach us gratitude, what University of Chicago theologian Langdon Gilkey used to call ‘the exultation of our own being that surfaces in the thought ‘My God, it’s good to be alive.’”

During this season of Lent I am focusing upon five things that matter most in how we live. One of these important matters is gratitude and is reflected in our ability to say ‘Thank You!’ to God and to individuals.

What I find is that the more I pay attention to the people around me and my surroundings, the more thankful I become. By paying attention to the details of the ways in which people give to us and show us care and consideration, we become more mindful of our own lives. We begin to focus on our good fortune rather than our problems. If we practice this consistently, feelings of gratitude can pervade our lives. C. S. Lewis once famously observed that the healthiest people he knew were the grateful ones, the ones always thanking. “Praise,” he said, “is almost inner health made audible” (Reflections on the Psalms).

Poets remind us to pay attention. A favorite poet of mine is Mary Oliver. She named her Cape Cod cottage “Gratitude.” Her poems are about seeing, noticing, awe, wonder and gratitude.

I go out to the dunes and look

and look and look

into the faces of the flowers. . . .

Such gifts, bestowed

can’t be rejected.

If you want to talk about this

come to visit. I live in the

house near the corner, which I have named Gratitude.

(“The Place I Want to Get Back To,” Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver, p. 35)

So I hope you will take a moment today to be like Ruth Miller, a woman in our congregation who is so intentional about saying thank you with her notes. Or thank someone you love when he or she smiles at you. The next time you put your child to bed or before you and your spouse retire for the evening, try expressing what he or she did that day that touched you, that acknowledged the connection you share. The words “thank you” are building blocks in the house named Gratitude.