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Teach Us to Pray: Being Grateful

The Rev. Frances Drolet-Smith, Diocesan Representative for the Anglican Fellowship of Prayer.

In February this year (that would be “BC”, as in “Before Covid”) I received an unexpected gift from a friend, a book entitled “Grateful: the subversive practice of giving thanks”.

The author, theologian and historian Diana Butler Bass, said in an interview that she’d landed the contract for the manuscript in early 2016 which “meant that during that really horrible, conflicted presidential election year, I was signed up to write a book on gratitude.”  She makes no bones about how the outcome of the US election affected her: “it was a devastating, painful, almost physical blow”. In fact, her visceral reaction was so acute that it challenged – and changed what she thought she knew about gratitude. Not only did the political landscape and the fabric of everyday life in her country become almost unrecognizable, it made her feel like a stranger in a strange land. “How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4)

I didn’t start to read Dr. Butler Bass’ book until well into the months of lockdown. With my office closed, working from home was frustrating. The technological learning curve was steep, and my patience grew increasingly thinner. Unable to meet in person with those outside my “bubble” made the work of discernment taxing – for me and for the discerners I accompany, who were simply longing to “get on with it”. With travel plans on hold, conferences postponed or even cancelled, my world began shrinking along with my tolerance level. “How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

By June, with our province’s flattening curve and the cautious lifting of some restrictions, things began looking up. Having figured out how to “share my screen”, insert audio and video files into online slide presentations and organize groups into “zoom rooms”, my inner disquiet also eased somewhat. The warmer weather, the budding and blooming garden and the socially distanced deck visits with friends signalled a new comfort level. What was I feeling now? Was this gratitude?? Then I remembered the book I’d been gifted.

According to Diana Butler Bass, we cannot live without gratitude. It’s an emotion and an awareness that is hard wired deep within us, evidence of our humanity. According to several studies, while the practice of gratitude takes time, its cultivation actually helps build resilience. It is good for our hearts and for our health. Br. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, says “If you’re grateful, you’re not fearful, and if you’re not fearful, you’re not violent… and that changes this power pyramid under which we live.” Quoting him, Diana Butler Bass adds, “when Jesus shows up at that table on the evening of the empty tomb in the room where a feast had become a funeral, a new table is set. It’s a table of gratitude – the gifts of God for the people of God – with the power to drive out fear.”

Butler Bass’ reaction to the 2016 US election and my response (and perhaps yours) to the limitations placed on us all by the pandemic have been undeniably, even understandably, exacerbated by fear. The question I was asking discerners – and which I needed to grapple with myself was “if this is your reality now, what may God be saying to you in this time?” In other words, “How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Butler Bass identifies two structures of gratitude that are always at odds with one another. The first is the “Debt and Duty” model championed by the Caesars of the world: hierarchical, built on obligation. The second, the one we are called to, is abundance – the awareness of the prodigal, lavish nature of God who always makes room for one more.

And while the world (and, let’s be honest, sometimes the Church) chants a scarcity mantra, the Gospel actually shouts a message of abundance. It is this providential quality of God who calls us to be co-creators in renewing the world. That’s the song I want to sing as we set a new table in this strange land!

Butler Bass, Diana   Grateful: the subversive practice of giving thanks        Harper Collins: New York, NY 2018   A free download A 7-day guide to Gratitude by Diana Butler Bass; includes excerpts from her book, questions to ponder and prayers