Gratitude: Leaving the Suburbs of God

01/09/2010 01:07 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is only possible

While living in the suburbs
Of God.*

When I am out of sorts, grumbling and angry, I turn to one of my dearest companions on this journey, the 14th century poet Hafiz - a man Emerson once described as "a poet for poets [because] he sees throughout [which is how I] want to be."* Hafiz always helps pull the rug out from my preconceptions, startle me back to wonder and, ultimately, catapult me into a sense of gratitude that brings me closer to the Heart of God.

When do I complain? Like any spiritual two-year old, I complain when things and persons are not the way I want them to be. But what if it's not about me? What if the very thing I am stumbling on and grumbling about is simply something that conceals a blessing that will sustain me and enrich my life with God if I look beneath it?

For Christians, the saying of "grace," the naming of gratitude, comes from their Jewish roots. In the Jewish community, the tradition is to greet each meal, each encounter, each event, each moment - positive or negative - with a "berekha," a blessing. And blessings always begin the same way:

Baruch ata__________Blessed are you,
Adonai**___________Intimately Known One,
Elohenu____________Our God,
Melech ha'olam ______The Continuing Source of Creation
. . .________________For . . .

And then the blessing continues with the naming of the particular event or moment. So, the blessing locates me as I move from 1) acknowledgment of God, to 2) God's intimate cherishing of me, to 3) community ("our" - as in the Christian "Lord's Prayer," which can never be prayed alone because it begins with "our"), to 4) the greater creation which is in God's hands, and then to 5) the experience I am personally facing. The blessing reminds me that whatever I face - whether in joy or dismay - I face in this context of God's love, the community, and God's continuing creative activity.

Each blessing also reminds me to look deeper. The Hebrew word for "blessing" - "berekha" - comes from the same root (b-r-kh) as the word for "knee." It is said that this is because wells in the desert are covered with large stones so that the water will not evaporate in the hot sun, and therefore a person has to get down on her knees to remove the stone and drink from the well. So, any event that pulls the rug out from me and startles me to my spiritual (and, sometimes, physical) knees is likely to be something that conceals a life-sustaining treasure. It may indeed be a blessing, an opportunity for gratitude, rather than a stumbling block or something to be rejected out of hand.

Several years ago, I was in a substantial amount of physical pain for months due to a one-two combination punch of a bad fall followed, a few weeks later, by a car accident. The simple act of walking was excruciating, and sometimes downright impossible. My life was limited in many very difficult ways. I wrestled with the issues of pain and limitation for months. And then one Friday, as I leaving to lead a weekend retreat, a friend said to me: "You have to bless this pain." My response, at that moment, was "No way. There is no way on God's green earth that this is blessed."

I alternately fumed and puzzled about my friend's comment in the car all during the two-hour drive. Once I arrived at the retreat center, I limped my way to our meeting area and asked for the help I needed in setting up the retreat space. During the set-up I focused on the needs and hopes of that community for the weekend. The retreat began well. That night, after the first session, I spent some time journaling about blessing my pain and my anger at the thought. The retreat continued on into Saturday.

During a break on Saturday, a woman took me aside and asked if I would make time to sit and talk with her during the afternoon free-time. When that time came, she raised a question about a difficult situation she was in. And, as we began exploring the matter, I discovered that it was only because I had first-hand experience of serious physical limitation that I was able to ask questions that came from the inside of pain, rather than from "the outside looking in." In that moment I was shocked to realize that, indeed, I had to bless the pain and become grateful for it.

I became grateful for my friend's wisdom, for without his statement about blessing, I might have missed the connection between my pain and the greater need; I might have missed the moment of grace that brought me in from the suburbs to the Heart of God. The experience of pain that I had rejected for months became a cornerstone for something new. Beneath it all there was a life-sustaining gift.

So now I am trying to pay better attention to the stones that startle me as I stumble on them in my daily path. When I find myself complaining, I wonder, "What gift might be in/under this stone?" "How did I get out to these suburbs again?" and "How might this be a path back home to God's Heart?"


* Ladinsky, Daniel (trans.). The Gift: Poems by Hafiz The Great Sufi Master. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1999. See pp. 1, 215. Used with the translator's gracious permission.

**English Bibles translate "Adonai" as "Lord," so it's easy to connect the word with a European, feudal sense of "lord" and forget that the Hebrew word is only a substitute for the name of God (YHVH) - a name so intimately revealed that it must not be said aloud, like the intimate name of one's lover.