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Posts Tagged ‘Gratitude’

The PenitentI started this post yesterday, but didn’t manage to finish it — though it would have been more apropos if I had, since Friday is a day of penance for Catholics and other Christians.  Nevertheless, every day is a good day to ask: “Is penance still relevant?”

All right — we need to first establish what penance is not.  Forget about familiar images of shirtless monks flagellating themselves with heavy whips until they are nearly half-dead and bathed in blood (there is a practice of mortification involving a rope, but it is much milder than that).  We Catholics do not hate our bodies, and I cannot emphasize that strongly enough.

Apart from religious reasons, I would argue that penance (prudently undertaken, of course) has tremendous benefits for the human person in general, and for today’s society in particular.

First, it encourages patience.  Without a doubt, we live in an instant gratification society.  We want what we want when we want it.

NYC_subway_riders_with_their_newspapersWe often complain (rightly) that our society is too busy, and that the professional world moves too fast and demands too much of our time and energy.  But what we tend to forget is the reason for this.  Our jobs and culture allow us so little leisure precisely because we are an immediate-satisfaction society.  Satisfaction of this desire demands that our industries, businesses, and other providers be constantly at the grindstone.

A spirit of penance encourages us to delay satisfaction and gratification, to say “no” to ourselves in the moment so as to build discipline and pave the way for greater, deeper rewards.  If 25 people in our society embraced a spirit of penance, imagine what effect that might have on our “go-go,” “get-get” culture.

The second benefit penance has for our society is related to this point.  Like I said, we modern Westerners have the tendency to move way too fast.  When we fast, when we deny ourselves certain legitimate pleasures for a time, or when we impose rigorous disciplines on ourselves, we then give ourselves occasion to grow in gratitude.  We come to realize that all good things are gifts from God, on Whom we depend for our every need.  This realization helps us to slow down and appreciate even the little things in life that we take for granted.

I could go on longer, but enough said for now.  Hopefully, this illustrates how even those aspects of traditional Christian teaching that are counter-intuitive are, in the last analysis, life-giving, and meant only for the good of humankind.

Images from Wikipedia

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Yeah I know, I’m a little late.  But this movie did win a Golden Globe, so hopefully someone will find it relevant.  As far as the plot goes, I think the trailer gives a sufficient background, so I won’t tire anyone by delving into it.

Gravity_Fetal_PositionMy focus is limited to Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), the medical engineer on her first space mission.  The almost-decisive moment in the film, for me, comes when she arrives at the abandoned Russian space station.  As soon as she reaches the safety of the station, she strips off her heavy space gear, curls up into a fetal position, and is momentarily at peace.

FreudSigmund Freud famously wrote about what he perceived to be the two basic human drives: Eros and Thanatos — the life-instinct and the death-instinct, respectively.

These drives, as Freud intended them to be understood, are not as clearly defined as they might seem.  Of the two, Thanatos is the drive closer to the fetal image.  It is the drive toward self-preservation, insulation, withdrawal, comfort…the cozy darkness of the womb.

Eros can be more accurately represented by a flower opening up to sunlight.  It is the drive toward opening oneself up, toward risk, toward adventure, toward expanding one’s horizons.

movies-gravity-sandra-bullock_1Stone’s journey into space strikes me as a form of Thanatos.  A short way into the film, we learn that she had a very young daughter who died.  She spent the rest of her time on earth burying herself in her work, and then outside of work she would just drive around in her car without any particular aim.  My assumption is that the space mission is the same “driving” she’s been doing since her daughter died, just taken all the way “out there.”

I’ve never been to outer space, but it does appear to have a certain womb-like quality with its darkness, silence, and solitude.  It’s the perfect place for someone to go if s/he is broken by grief and wants to get away from everything, including his/her own pain.

Tragedy, pain and trial can lead to various forms of Thanatos, including those that are more self-destructive.  But these can also be transformational and redemptive.  They can break us out of the false security of the ego, open us up to commiseration with others, and instill in us a sense of our dependence on a Higher Power.

In other words, we can respond to suffering Erotically (in the life-drive sense).  The greatest form of Eros, in my view, is prayer.  Far from curling up into a ball, we open ourselves up to the God who wants to speak to us when we pray.  But as with the flower opening itself up to the sun, this involves a certain self-forgetfulness and the acceptance of vulnerability.  And yet, that is where we find true and abiding peace.

Gravity_PrayerOur protagonist seems to gain a sense of this as she fights for her life 372 miles above the earth.  The life instinct wells up in her, and just when her survival seems to have become impossible, she turns to prayer — lamenting, at one point, that no one ever taught her how to pray.

*SPOILER ALERT*

In the end, Stone makes it back to earth in a capsule from an abandoned Chinese space station.  The shuttle lands in a lake; Stone climbs out of the shuttle, swims to shore, emerges from the water onto dry land, kisses the ground, and utters these words as a breath of fresh air: “Thank you.”

Gravity_GratitudeIt occurred to me that herein lies the key both to prayer and to peace in adversity: Gratitude.  As the toddler gains from his mother’s fundamental, assuring presence the confidence he needs to explore his environment, so the soul needs to learn to rest in God’s loving care and sustenance in order to venture out, boldly and freely, into the beautiful and unpredictable ocean of the Divine Life.

On that note, I present to you, in conclusion, the greatest act of prayer the world has ever seen:

Christ Crucified by VelazquezPhotos of Freud and Christ crucified obtained from Wikipedia; all other images obtained through a Google image search

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Did I get your attention?  Good — now I can clarify that I mean “hedonism” in the broadest sense of the search for happiness.

G._K._Chesterton_at_workI am reminded of comments from the great English essayist G.K. Chesterton, who had a lot to say about the joy of a life of thanks-giving in his biography of St. Francis of Assisi.

Basically, what he said was this: Most of us, to our own misery, go through life as creditors rather than as debtors.

Now why would going through life as a creditor make one miserable?  Well, think about it…here’s the attitude that goes with it:

  • A. I am owed something…even a lot of things;
    B. I am not being given these things, and therefore I am being cheated;
    C. I’ve got to ceaselessly hound the world to give me what it owes me, or else I must be unhappy.

We could probably stop right there.  But let’s look at the alternative of living the life of a debtor — that is, someone who has been given much, and cannot possibly repay anyone or anything for it.

Now, if this indebtedness is to a creature, then we could see this causing nervousness.  But if it is to the Creator, Who needs nothing and to Whose happiness we, as creatures, could never add, then how could we live except in pure joy?

Saint FrancisTo be a Christian is to be grateful — first and foremost for the gift of the Son of God and His vicarious sacrifice for our salvation, but also for all the gifts of God.

Indeed, God Himself is pure gift.  From all eternity, the Divine Life consists of the self-giving and generous interplay of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Father, from all eternity, gives Himself away in love to the Son.  The Son, from all eternity, gives Himself away to the Father in gratitude.  The Holy Spirit, from all eternity, is this very Love between the Father and the Son.

And God communicates this goodness to us through the gifts of life, creation, and providence.  The more we realize our reasons for gratitude, the deeper our relationship with God can become; the deeper the relationship, the greater the spiritual blessings we receive, and the more obliged we are to show gratitude…and the joyful cycle continues.

Happy Thanksgiving all.  Take care!

Images from Wikipedia

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