There’s nothing like a good hike, except when you get lost. One of my favorite memories from when I was a kid was going to Camp Cedar Lake (not really, but lies aren’t lies if they are in a blog). Camp Cedar Lake was a Christian camp with all the normal camp things—shooting rifles, making cheap crafts, swimming, canoeing (which often turned into swimming) and a hike up a mountain. Thinking about it now, I doubt it was much of a hike or a mountain; but as a 9-year-old, both were epic. Our guide up the mountain was our cabin counselor. Now generally, one would not entrust one’s life to a 17-year old who couldn’t find any better paying summer job than at a church camp, but entrust ourselves we did. And so, up the mountain we went; and before we knew it, we arrived at the top. As advertised, the view was deeply spiritually moving (lies aren’t lies. . . .). But after a while, we decided that we had had enough and were ready to go down. Our counselor, however, was having a good time and wanted to stay just a little bit longer. See, the counselors from the camp on the other side of the mountain had also hiked up the mountain; and we were all sharing the vista together. Did I mention the other camp was a girls’ camp? In any case, our counselor wanted to enjoy “the view” a little while longer; so a bunch of us, with his blessing, started down the mountain alone. I’m not sure what happened, but the trail must have gone right and we went left because, before we knew it, we were lost. As we meandered around the side of the mountain for the next several hours, our counselor tried to play, “Get on Base with a Baptist” (or perhaps it was, “Make Out with the Methodist”), felt the sting of rejection, made his way down the mountain, enjoyed a few minutes of peace and quiet in the cabin, realized something was different, but went on to oversee the afternoon swim, went to the Snack Shack and was on his way to dinner when it hit him. His whole cabin was missing! He immediately informed the camp director who then informed him this was his last week of employment. The director also sent out a search party (how is searching for lost people a “party”?). By now it was getting really dark; but being good campers, we had found the right trail and were almost at the bottom of the mountain. We met the search party coming up the mountain, which was good because they had no clue how to find us. All the campers clapped for us when we entered the dining hall. It was a nice ending. Plus, every year when they are training new staff members, they tell the story of the cabin who got lost. That’s right, we’re famous! They may also tell the story of a counselor who was playing with an anchor when he accidentally fell out of his canoe, never to be heard of again. Hence, the reason for triple ear drops (lies aren’t lies. . . .).
One of the things that often gets lost in conversations about gratitude is how gratitude is related to all the other virtues. The Roman statesman Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all the others.” I’m not sure if gratitude gives birth to all the other virtues; but it seems like, whenever a virtue is present, so is gratitude. Take humility, for instance. Oftentimes, humility is seen as the chief of all virtues. For example, Thomas Merton said, “Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.” And Augustine wrote: “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues; hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist, there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” And again (just because I love Augustine), “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are fruitless.” Now, try this. Read the above quotes again, but instead of reading “humility,” insert the word “gratitude” and see if there is any loss of meaning? I assure you, there won’t be. In part, that is because, if someone is truly humble, they will also be someone who is truly grateful. And someone who is truly grateful will always be some who is also truly humble. The two mirror each other. Both put others first. Both see life as a gift from God. Both express themselves in worship and both see their primary identity as someone blessed unconditionally by God. Just like “Mary’s little lamb,” everywhere that gratitude goes, humility is sure to follow.
Some more examples. Doesn’t being grateful make us more compassionate? Having received so much, aren’t we more inclined to be gracious to others? And doesn’t being grateful make us more patient? And doesn’t being grateful make us more peaceful? Pick a virtue, any virtue; and it seems to me that they cannot exist without gratitude existing first. It is a shame that this idea has been lost over time, but it is very true. You can’t have one without the other.
Perhaps, you are not convinced; but think of the commands Jesus gave us. He says in Matthew 10:8: “Freely you have received; freely give.” Why should we do such an unprofitable thing? The most obvious answer is because we are so grateful for God’s good gifts. Jesus says in another place (Jn. 13:34): “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Again, why should we do such a hard thing? Simple, because we are so grateful that we have received God’s love. Paul says (Col. 3:13): “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Why? Because we are so grateful that our sins have been forgiven. Paul says (Rom. 15:7), “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you.” Again, why? Because we are so grateful we have been accepted. And we could go on because almost every command in the New Testament has this dynamic. We aren’t expected to obey out of ought or obligation; rather, our obedience is to flow out of our sincere gratitude. While I could not definitively say that gratitude gives birth to all of the virtues, I truly believe that gratitude is present from day one.
But there is another side to this that is so very helpful. If I were to command you, saying, “Be ye more humble, more forgiving, and more loving,” my guess is that you would tell me to get my “ye’s” out of your business, not because you don’t want to be more humble, forgiving and loving, but because to embody these things is hard work. And where do you even begin? What do you do first and second and third? And how do you put these things into your daily life? It is too big, too ambiguous and too complex. But if I were to tell you, “Be ye more grateful,” you could easily think of ways to implement that. You can be more thankful in prayer. You can express gratitude to the people around you. You can be more gracious in your life as setbacks occur. In short, the problem in developing an attitude of gratitude is not that it is too complex or vague; the problem is us. Are we willing to move in that direction?
But here’s the point (so don’t get lost here!): embodying gratitude in all situations will organically help produce humility, a more forgiving spirit and a loving concern for others. What seems impossible (“be ye more humble, forgiving and loving”) is now quite doable simply by being more grateful, because where gratitude is sown, humility, grace and love grow. Bottom line: everything flows from gratitude, and gratitude is something we know how to do.
As he was dying, Abba Benjamin, one of the desert fathers, instructed his sons, saying: “Do this, he said and you will be saved: rejoice always, pray continually and in all circumstances give thanks.” The path to real spiritual growth is now clearly marked for us. All we have to do is follow it home.
Happy Thanksgiving and happy hiking through life!