Gratitude is Much More than a Thank You
There were technical difficulties getting this blog posted, which is why it was not up last weekend. I appreciate your patience. Reader alert: This blog mentions a suicide attempt. Although it is not the theme of the blog, some people may want to prepare themselves mentally for reading this or may choose to skip the blog entirely. I certainly understand and wish you well and God’s blessing.
Years ago, my father was the head crisis negotiator for the local police department. He would be called away from home (or from a school field trip one time) even on days off to lead the negotiations with hostage takers or suicidal persons when such critical incidents arose. Fully trained, relying on God for guidance, and having a natural knack for talking with people, he was successful in every case. Still, it took a lot out of him. He wouldn’t sleep well for days after an incident as the intensity of the situation worked itself through his mind. He still says it was the hardest part of his job.
In one particularly difficult situation, a college student was perched high above the pavement on a ledge outside a hotel room window. My father began talking to the young man from within the room, but the man seemingly had no reaction to his words. Then, suddenly, he stepped forward on the ledge as if to jump, and my dad’s heart went into his throat. It appeared as if he had lost the boy. Fortunately, the student stepped back again from the edge and eventually decided to re-enter the hotel room where my father was able to get him the emergency care he needed. A short time after the incident, the young man’s parents sent a note to my father that read in part, “Officer Dowd, we want to thank you for what you did for our son. Because of you, instead of planning his funeral, we are planning to get him all the help he needs. Thank you.” My dad still has that note. It means the world to him.
Can you think of similar incidents, perhaps not as dramatic, in your life? Is there a “thank you” that still echoes across the years and fills your heart?
What is it about those two simple words: thank you? They have such power. They express something as ordinary as simple gratitude, as when receiving a cup of coffee we say to the server, “thank you” in a gesture of good manners and civility. Yet, they also express the type of gratitude that exceeds simple manners and is rooted in the deep soil of human interdependence and solidarity. In this sense, its relational character rises to its zenith. We say, “thank you” with great love, acknowledging the graced interaction that makes us whole.
When Jesus healed the ten lepers, only “one of them,”—a Samaritan, an enemy, not whom you would expect to be the noble one in the story—“realizing he had been healed… fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” I am sure that expression of gratitude meant the world to Jesus. It was neither an empty gesture nor a perfunctory expression of good manners; this man understood gratitude and distilled it into its purest form, which is love. And who can keep silent about love? No wonder he “returned, glorifying God in a loud voice”—love is like that, isn’t it? The problem with the other nine, then, was nothing less than a lack of love. They experienced healing, but they didn’t value the relationship that made that healing possible. Jesus points out the absence of the other nine, noting that “none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God,” and praises him for his faith: “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”
Usually, Jesus tells us that someone’s faith was the reason they were healed. In this case, 9 out of 10 lepers were healed after crying out to Jesus, “Have pity on us!” and didn’t return. Only one leper recognized the relationship that faith in God through Christ Jesus establishes, a relationship that makes us whole. To him, Jesus says, “your faith has saved you.” He doesn’t say his faith has cured him of the leprosy; after all, that was a gift given to all ten. He says something about salvation. He says is to a foreigner. He says it to an enemy whose religious practices were assumed to be deficient, unworthy, and unacceptable to God. Salvation, it turns out, is given not based on ritual practices or beliefs, but on right relationship with God in Christ Jesus. It is given to the one who says, “thank you.”
Nothing captures this multivalent sense of gratitude as an expression of thanks (for whatever gift was given), as an expression of love (for the giver), as an expression of faith (affirming the relationship), and as the very source of salvation (by being in that relationship) than the Eucharist. The very word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” In this sacrament, we accomplish what Meister Eckhart understood as the one essential thing. He taught us simply, “If the only prayer you ever say is thank you, it will be enough.” It was enough, indeed, for that one leper. What about us?