Listened to any voices lately?

  • December 18, 2008
Sometimes it takes a while to see what’s at the end of your nose. I was groaning under the weight of things: impossible duties, unfulfilled hopes, unending worries, immovable problems. My inner chambers had become cramped and narrow, like a house I saw once. It was crammed from floor to ceiling with things, sofas on chairs on tables, broken crates, old hub caps, huddles of books, while the owner lived in narrow crooked pathways carved through the piled mountains. Like the man in the narrow pathways, I felt constricted and controlled, trying to live in tight little mental warrens hemmed in by earthly cares.
Then I happened to be sitting on a bus, for a few moments of forced inaction, accompanied by the rhythmic motion of the vehicle. Voices started to speak in my head, and for once I turned off everything else and listened to them. “I thank God every day,” one said. It was the voice of a woman I’d spoken with recently, and this is what she’d told me. Though in the midst of a serious money problem, which left her in a tough situation in regard to caring for her kids, she pauses every day to give thanks to God — not for anything specific, but with a basic grateful attitude and a need to speak to the Giver.

As the bus neared my destination, I sorted out other voices and realized they were all people who recently had spoken the same word to me: gratitude, in the midst of suffering. Not gratitude for suffering, as though God would show His love by hurting us. Rather, gratitude for gifts received even in hard times. Another voice was that of a man who’d lost his house and had to move into a tiny apartment — but his family rallied round and he was saying how thankful he was for their love. He approached his troubles with a remarkable elasticity of spirit; could this thankfulness be the source of it?

Why do we resist gratitude? Why are we so inclined to cling to our cares and our worries, as I was doing in creating those cramped, narrow places I’d become so addicted to — until voices of gratitude, spoken in my presence by living people, helped to kindle me. I don’t mean to trivialize real human difficulties; I’ve met many who have just cause to be bent over and distorted by life. Perhaps we all do, in a way; perhaps becoming bent double is just a reasonable response to the burdens of life. And yet. Those hard forbidding cliffs inside us get caressed by a breeze that springs up out of nowhere, or a trickle of water coming down from above. Shall we take the risk to turn our faces to that breeze, our lips to that water? 

A long time ago, a European I was visiting observed that each nation, like each person, has its own particular path of repentance. Canada’s, he thought, is gratitude: we need, as a nation, to turn from ingratitude to gratefulness. We do seem to be a surprisingly worried nation for such an abundantly endowed one; we worry about our health, our security, our future. Perhaps, as we become less familiar with the living God, it becomes harder for us to recognize and respond to a sense of gratitude rising up within. If we are grateful, we’re grateful to someone, someone whom we encounter and to whom we simply must say: “Thank you! I love you!” So we turn toward the Giver, to learn to know His touch, His voice, His way of delighting in us and pouring out gifts, even when things are tough. I’m rather amazed when I realize how often, over my life, I’ve seen people turn to Him this way, amid life circumstances that would make me tremble.

That encounter is what we long for. Some of us may have found, during this Christmastide, that we had such encounter: in another person, in oneself, in the direct presence of the living Christ. Possibly, though, many of us did not taste that revelation; we may have deliberately closed our hearts to protect them from hurt, or we may have had them rebuffed when we sought. When we don’t find encounter where we’re seeking it, the temptation is to give up on it and return to the hard inner cliffs. But it might be more available to us than we realize. My friends who spoke words of gratitude offered me the opportunity, though it was a few days before I even heard what they’d said. And their gratefulness opened my heart a little, preparing me better for the next time.

At Christmas, we celebrate the encounter of the lowly night-workers, the shepherds, with the Living Word of God. At Epiphany, Jan. 6, we celebrate the wise sages meeting the same Christ. In both cases, the encounter is marked by glory. Can gratefulness for what we’ve received, even in hard times, help prepare us for such glory?