Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving, Part II: Moving from Thanks to Giving

By Sr. Tracy Kemme, SC Federation Temporary Professed

      Click HERE to learn more about Tracy

      Click HERE to learn more about the SC Federation

On retreat in May, my director invited me to spend some time reflecting on gratitude, but there was a block in me.  Whenever I started to feel inklings of awe, my heart and mind became flooded with the injustice, poverty, and violence of the world.  I saw the faces of marginalized people that I meet through my ministry, and my heart winced.  How could I have the audacity to be grateful in the face of such pain and oppression?

I shared this with my director, and she smiled gently.  “Please, tell me: how is your guilt making life better for those struggling people?”

Now it was my turn to smile.  I looked down and then back up.  “I guess it’s not.”

“Exactly.  You neglecting to give thanks for the goodness in your life isn’t noble, and it doesn’t help anybody,” she continued.  “God rejoices in your gratitude just as God rejoices in your compassion.”

In his book Sacred Fire, Ronald Rohlheiser says that “gratitude is the basis of all holiness.”  Living in deep gratitude to the Creator is, for him, the first sign of a mature spirituality.  “The highest compliment we can give to a gift giver is to enjoy the gift thoroughly,” he says.  “Our level of maturity and generativity is synonymous with our level of gratitude – and mature people enjoy their lives.”

Our level of generativity is synonymous with our level of gratitude.  As I talked with my spiritual director, I realized that authentic gratitude keeps on giving.  When our heart falls to its knees in awe and thanksgiving to our God, we are opened up.  Just as real love is infinite, inherently desiring to widen and expand and encompass everyone, real gratitude compels us to giving.  If we deeply reverence all as gift, given to us by a God of love to no merit of our own, we want all to share in the gift.  And the relationship shifts from gifts as objects to love for subjects – an awareness of our oneness.

On Christmas Eve during my first year in Ecuador, the Uguña family invited me to their family celebration.  After late Mass in the simple chapel across the street, we shuffled into their cement block home.  A lovely folding table was set with plastic ware, and Christmas music wafted through the air.  The three boys taught me dance moves while chicken and rice emerged from the kitchen in Mamá Jenny’s loving hands.  At midnight, we ate, and we sat around the table for a long time.  Then, almost as an afterthought, Oscar, the father of the family, arose and said, “Los regalos!”

Jenny and her three boys, a few years after
that first memorable Christmas Eve. 
Each child opened one small gift, and they were exuberant.  Jenny and Oscar beamed to watch the delight of their children.  My heart burst as I took in the scene; I know how even three gifts were a financial sacrifice for the couple.  Then, Oscar motioned to the boys, and they ran excitedly to the bedroom to retrieve a small box.  The oldest thrust it into Jenny’s hands.

Her eyes met Oscar’s in soft surprise, and he winked.  She smiled deep motherly love at her three boys and opened the gift.  It was a small piece of cardboard pierced by two sets of tiny earrings.  She took them in with sweet gratitude, and then she set them aside, engulfing her children in a warm embrace.

Releasing them from the hug, she removed the earrings from the cardboard.  Then, seamlessly, she turned to me and handed me one of the pairs.  I must have looked perplexed, because she nodded toward her extended palm and said, “Para tí!  Feliz Navidad.”

I had probably thirty pairs of earrings in my bedroom at the house.  Jenny had almost nothing for herself.  I resisted.  But no amount of protesting would keep Jenny from sharing her gift with me.

I walked home that night with a pair of earrings in my pocket and a lesson in my heart.

It was never about the earrings.  It was about being a family and sharing love, a love that says, “All are invited.”  Jenny is deeply grateful and uncomfortably generous.  Jenny is one of the holiest people I know.

Sometimes, after an encounter with people like Jenny and Oscar, “the poor,” people from privileged U.S. classes say things like, “It just reminded me how blessed I am.  I’m going to be so much more grateful.”  And that’s it.  Like somehow God chose to bless me and not the other people, and that’s okay.  Whew, thank God I’m one of the fortunate ones!  That’s not mature, generative gratitude.

True gratitude plunges us into deeper relationship with God and all that God created.  We are free to relish the goodness of our lives, and we are urged to create more goodness in the world around us.  True gratitude compels us to service of the Reign of God.

This Thanksgiving, let us give thanks, deep, rooted, awe-filled thanks to our Creator.  But let’s not stop there, trapped in our personal table of bounty, in our private circle of loved ones.  Let’s open ourselves to the urging of gratitude:  we give thanks, and then we give ourselves fully to striving for justice and peace for all.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thanksgiving, Part I: Getting a Gr-attitude Adjustment

By Sr. Tracy Kemme, SC Federation Temporary Professed

      Click HERE to learn more about Tracy

      Click HERE to learn more about the SC Federation

“Primero, quiero dar gracias a Dios por otro día más de vida…”

First, I want to thank God for one more day of life.  Working with women’s empowerment groups on the dusty, poor outskirts of Guayaquil, Ecuador, I heard these words more times than I can count.  Our meetings began with prayer led by one of the participants, and, without fail, their prayers began with praising God.  After thanking God for being alive, the women often continued on to thank God for the sun, the sky, their children, their homes, and for their “daily bread.”  And these were not rote words.  Their eyes were shut lovingly, and their faces were strong with devotion as they prayed them.

Sitting in plastic chairs outside two room houses whose cane walls and dirt floors held heart-wrenching stories of poverty, hunger, alcoholism, and abuse, the words of thanksgiving that opened each prayer were particularly striking.  In the midst of all these women carried, their basic posture to God was fierce, deep gratitude for the gift of life.  Interesting how “the poor,” who at first glance had very little to be grateful for, taught me more about gratitude than anybody else.


Last week, I wasn’t feeling very grateful.  Ministry was draining me.  Along with the usual demands, I was walking with some parishioners in a particularly painful situation that required lots of time and emotion.  Overwhelmed and under-slept, I was cranky as could be.

On one of those cranky mornings, I flipped mindlessly through my Facebook feed.  A friend, Mark, who is a cancer survivor, had posted this, “Overwhelmed today with gratitude. I get to be busy. There was a time when I had to stop. I just keep trying to move forward and upward.”  I get to be busy.  It hit me.  Most mornings, I look over my schedule at all the things I have to do.  How different would it be if I started the day looking ahead at all the things I get to do?  I knew I needed an attitude adjustment, or more accurately, a gr-attitude adjustment.

There are many barriers to gratitude, and some are legitimate.  I don’t want to minimize the reality of life. Last week, I found out that a dear friend is sick, and it is heavy on my heart.  Stress and strained relationships are real.  We’re humans, and some days we’re just cranky.  I’ve been through depression, and I know it’s not something you can just throw off like bedcovers.  It doesn’t help to beat ourselves up when we struggle to be grateful.  And it doesn’t help to walk around in superficial optimism, either.

 Still, sometimes, we can make a shift.  There is a difference between sitting in the muck of life and wallowing in it.  Sitting in it, we are honest: we acknowledge it’s there, but we don’t have to writhe around in it like a dog in a mud puddle.  There’s a difference between a healthy vulnerability that allows us to share our struggles with others and being consumed with complaining.  There is some kind of warped pleasure I can get from clinging to the negative, from replaying scenes in my mind and repeating them to others.  It’s almost addictive.  Mark’s Facebook post reminded me that we have some choice in this cycle.
On the grumpy morning that I read his words, I dropped the phone and went to my journal.  I started writing:  I am alive.  The sun is shining.  I can breathe, and walk, and read, and write…and on and on.  Once I got started, the list took on a life of its own.  I was no longer overwhelmed with surface negativity but with awe.

It’s amazing what happens to us spiritually, psychologically, and physiologically when we begin to name what we’re grateful for.  It forces us to zoom out and view the big picture of our lives.  It doesn’t erase the reality of pain and struggle, but it puts it in perspective.  I should’ve known this; my Ecuadorian friends showed me.  Living authentic gratitude is a both-and.

Thank you, God, for another day of life.

...Go to next blog entry for Thanksgiving Part II!...