Friday 10 November 2017

“Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good.” (Psalms 107, 118, 136)

I am on the tail-end of the Asian Riverview reunions. As always, the gatherings of Old Ignatians, current and past parents, in rural settings or overseas, have a common thread. It is gratitude. So many recollections of significant experiences, of formation in the broadest sense, of the cultivation of values and attitudes, of very personal and pastoral care – these inevitably lead to expressions of thanks. And, so often, not thanks to anyone in the current generation, but to teachers, coaches and staff long-dead. Even generically, simply thanks “to the school”. It is not uncommon, as well, to have Old Ignatians remark that they did not realise those values and virtues, understand the ways of finding God, appreciate the strategies for discerning big choices in life, take up the challenges given them as youngsters to make a difference in the lives of those on the edge until they had left school, or until they started to study in a bigger world, or until they began in the workplace, or until they fell in love and raised their own children. The experiences prompt thanks, evoke gratitude.

Meanwhile, back at the College, as Year 12s have finished at their academic ‘race track’ (that is what curriculum means in Latin), there are many moving moments of thank-yous expressed by boys to staff. Even when that race track was a bit rough, or became an almost impossible steeplechase, our latest alumni have been expressing their gratitude for all that has been. Likewise, teachers and coaches, mentors and boarding masters thank their former charges for all they have given in return, in their own unique ways, to those who had care of them. Mutual thanks.

I take great delight in regularly reminding our young men that Ignatius believed that the greatest sin in life was ingratitude. That was no mean call of his in an era when the poor were ground into the dust, when political success was achieved by poisons and plots, when every imaginable sexual exploitation was at hand, when savage wars were waged, when even the Church itself tortured and burned people alive for the sake of faith and truth. But ingratitude? Of course, Ignatius was not the first to suggest this. The great medieval mystic (and Dominican) Meister Eckhart had earlier remarked, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

In a letter to a fellow Jesuit, Ignatius suggested that ingratitude is “abominable” and to be “detested” because “it is a forgetting of the graces, benefits and blessings received” and “as such, it is the cause, beginning and origin of all sins and misfortunes.” These are tough words. But Ignatius views the ingrate as the so-called self-made person, beholden to no-one. All they are, all they possess, and all they have achieved has been earned by them, merited by them, achieved by them, due to them. There is room for no-one else in their self-enclosed world. No room for another. No room for God.

For some, thanking God is not always easy. If our image of God is distorted or destructive, then thanks is strained and grudging. Quite a few decades ago now, Juan Arias published a book entitled The God I Don’t Believe In. It was in response to what he saw as a growing atheism, a movement of people away from a God they feared rather than loved, a God who was distant and did not understand. In that book, Arias drew up a litany of descriptors of his “false gods”. To offer a few of his many descriptors:

“No, I shall never believe in:
the God who catches the human person by surprise in a sin of weakness,
the god who condemns material things,
the God incapable of giving an answer to the grave problems of a sincere and honest person who cries in tears: “I can’t!”,
the God who loves pain,
the God who flashes a red light against human joys,
the God who sterilises human reason,
the God who is a magician and sorcerer,
the God who makes himself feared,
the God who does not allow people to talk familiarly to him,
the God who makes Himself the monopoly of a church, a race, a culture or a caste.”

It is only when we can shed ourselves of such false images of God (formed from our own life experiences, or foisted upon us by others) can we discover a God of love who wants only the best for us. Only then will real gratitude flow. Such moments come our way often surprisingly. A reflective person can name them, just as American poet Mary Oliver does in this experience she describes:

The Place I Want to Get Back To
Mary Oliver

is where
in the pinewoods
in the moments between
the darkness

and first light
two deer
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me

they said to each other, okay,
this one is okay,
let’s see who she is
and why she is sitting

on the ground, like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;

and so they came
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way

I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward

and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring to me that could exceed
that brief moment?
For twenty years

I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts, bestowed,
can’t be repeated.

If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named
              Gratitude.

Fr Ross Jones SJ