The more I sit with it, the more I think gratitude is the very epicenter of the life of the spirit. Pretty much every religious tradition tells us this, even if they put their own spin on it. Every person I respect as a spiritual teacher embodies it. And my own life has taught me that gratitude can open windows where I thought I saw walls.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, has spent his whole adult life centered in and sharing the practice of gratitude and gratefulness. I discovered his work on a lovely website called gratefulness.org, which I commend to you if you go on the Web.
In a video on that website a woman explains the difference between gratitude and gratefulness:
There are two branches of gratitude: one is gratefulness and one is thanksgiving.
Gratefulness is the experience of life when the bowl of life is so full that it’s almost overflowing. When you’re in the great fullness of life you are one with the universe, and there is no sense of anything being “other.”
And that is so fulfilling that the bowl of life overflows and dribbles over, and that puts you into the second branch of gratitude. That’s thanksgiving, when the bowl is absolutely overflowing and you’re grateful that there is an “other” because all you want to do is to give and share and make a difference. And that is so fulfilling that it puts you in the great fullness of life where there is no other, and you can live your whole life in the two branches of gratitude.
Doesn’t that sound like a grand way to live life? Seriously, Brother David looks on the Web to be an extremely happy person! I am sure that living each day in the energy cycle of these two branches of gratitude would make me happy as well. But, I regret to say, often I’m in a different tree altogether.
Too often, I experience the great fullness of life as overwhelming. How will I do everything I have to get done today? Dog hair, unread magazines, kids’ dirty socks, etc., all seem to have little tiny faces to taunt me about ever keeping my environment anything close to the restfulness of Brother David’s monastery. And that’s not even mentioning the paper piles, each beckoning me to spend time with them.
When the great fullness is something I resist, deny, avoid, or curse, then thanksgiving becomes equally warped. If only people would just listen to me and do what I want them to do! Which, of course, is not the same as “I want to give and share and make a difference.” I suspect that for Brother David, thanksgiving is not tied to control or outcome, but is a complete act in and of itself.
As I’ve been working with gratitude as my own spiritual practice, here are a couple of things I’ve discovered. Gratefulness and thanksgiving can be a description of the breath: taking in the great fullness as the inhale, releasing into thanksgiving as the exhale. Even three breaths with this awareness can shift what I experience and how I participate in the world. (When desperate, I’ve been known to duck into a bathroom and breathe myself right again.)
I also experience this dynamic of gratefulness and thanksgiving in relationships. As our relationship as congregation and minister deepens, I feel the truth of giving and receiving. Neither one of these can happen without the other. I would not be reflecting and writing now were you not there to read it. And for that I am eternally grateful to you!
It’s also nice to set aside a few minutes each day to do nothing but practice gratitude. In the morning, I have embraced lighting the flaming chalice, Unitarian Universalism’s centering symbol, as my time of intentional strengthening of the gratitude muscle.
Before I light it, I sit with the great fullness of the chalice itself, empty though it may appear. I call to mind all that surrounds and supports me: ancestors, spiritual leaders, beautiful sights, people and animals and plants, and I sit with the great fullness of all there is. The members of CLF are central in this great fullness practice, both the folks I have spoken with and the ones I have yet to meet personally.
Once I am full of all of the gifts of life, I light the chalice flame, a symbol of thanksgiving. Flame offers light and warmth, without qualification, to all. “Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere,” wrote Theodore Parker, a prominent Unitarian preacher in the 1800s. And there is the flame, happy to offer itself, like sunshine, without limitation or holding back, to all who seek light or warmth.
Doing this each morning (even in my mind sometimes, when circumstances prevent the actual chalice lighting) makes a difference in my days. For one thing, I remember how deeply I am connected to all of you and to so many others. This keeps me grounded. For another, it reminds me how much fuel I have for the fire, so that I can burn brightly without being afraid my light will go out. I start my morning in great fullness, and prepare myself to shine.
- Rev. Meg Riley