I was brought up to be grateful, but not in a good way.
Nearly a half-century ago, as a senior at Boston College and in my sixteenth year of Catholic education, it gradually came over me that most of what I had been taught about religion made no sense to me anymore. All those lessons memorized from the Baltimore Catechism, repeated with increasing detail from first grade through high school, even into the mandatory college theology classes—all, it now seemed, were absurd.
A primary thrust of many a lesson was that I owed everything to God. My child’s mind saw it this way: To God the Father I owed my very life, my family, the food I ate, the green grass, and every material thing. To Jesus, I owed the possibility of heaven; if I followed all the rules (which I did), I would be there with Him for eternity. It was all about gratitude: Had Jesus not suffered and sacrificed his human life, all of humanity would be punished for the sin that our ungrateful parents, Adam and Eve, had committed at the dawn of time. I believed, as a child, that I did not really deserve to live or to have anything at all that I had. Everything on earth, everything I had, including the air I breathed, existed only because of the grace and the goodness of the infinite, eternal, all-knowing God.
At 21, when my view of this theology took a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn, I jettisoned gratitude along with the Holy Trinity. If the point of gratitude was to praise God, and there was no God in my life, expressions of gratitude were irrelevant. So I let it go for twenty years. Such gratitude was all about guilt, and the last thing I needed, as I abandoned the faith of my father and mother and sisters and brother, was more guilt.
It took a long time subsequently to realize that active gratitude can be decoupled from God. I don’t mean to say that I spent years in a state of ingratitude. In fact, as I matured I was increasingly thankful for many things: for all that my parents had given me, for friends and family, meaningful work, shelter and food and so much more. But it was an underground gratitude, rarely expressed beyond routine thank-yous where appropriate.
Coming to real, chosen, and guilt-free gratitude has been a long process, one in which First Parish has played a major role. I owe First Parish—I am grateful to the people who are and have been the community of First Parish—for bringing this way of gratitude to the surface for me, for showing me the joy of choosing gratitude as a way of life. Given that I have abundant blessings and so very much to be grateful for, it has been one more blessing over the years to be subtly and overtly encouraged to take account of those blessings, and to be given words and constructs with which to express gratitude for what is good in this amazing world, broken and suffering though it may be.
I am so much more content in this place where gratitude is expansive, it can spill out all over—to you who are reading this as part of my community; to the people near and far working for justice; to the adorable kid next door just for being so cute; to the clouds in the sky and the compost in the bin. Today I find that I am even a tiny bit grateful to the Baltimore Catechism and all of those religious indoctrination lessons, for without them I could not have written this essay. Gratitude without god—small “g” for me now—is akin to joy, and I am grateful to have found my way to it.
Years ago, as an early tap-in to this expansive gratitude, I pinned Anne Sexton’s poem “Welcome Morning” on the kitchen bulletin board. I leave you with these few lines:
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.