“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice” (Luke 17:15).
If you’re confused by the gospel of Jesus, you might have good reason to be. Jesus said he came that we might have more and better life than we ever dreamed of having (John 10:10 The Message). He also said authentic life, something he called the kingdom of God, was at hand and it was high time to turn our lives around and live as if it is (Mark 1:15). St. Paul told us the life God offered in Jesus Christ – he called it “reconciliation” – is for everyone without exception, regardless of anyone’s sin (2 Cor. 5:19).
It sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? The hopes and dreams of the ages are fulfilled; all we have to do is accept it and start living the dream, and if we don’t sit down at the table and start feasting now, we’ll find that later will be too late (Luke 14:15-24). I’m on board; count me in. Then I read something that gives me pause. In his version of the gospel, Matthew tells us Jesus said, “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:14).
Maybe living the abundant life is not as easy as I thought. Or maybe, just maybe, it is easy, and most of the folks in the world and I are just making it hard. Maybe the gate is narrow not because it is narrow but because my vision is so limited I have trouble seeing it. And maybe the road is hard not because it is hard but because the guides I trust to lead me are leading me astray. What I really need is better vision, the ability to see what’s been right in front of me all along. And what I need are better guides who are more faithful and trustworthy and who will help me stay on the right road.
One of my guides is Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who leads A Network for Grateful Living (gratefulness.org), a global organization that inspires and guides a commitment to grateful living and its transformative power. Brother David is one of those who have helped me see that the gate to authentic life is as wide as all creation and that the road God prepares for us is one where, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; [where] the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (Isa. 40:4).
It’s grateful living, Brother David has said, that guides us toward what really matters in life, toward what’s truly meaningful, and toward what will make a difference in the hearts of those with whom we share this life. Grateful living is the antidote to exhaustion, frustration, and depression. Grateful living is what leads us to see and experience more and more of the abundant life God offers.
Few people begin to live a grateful life all at once. It has to begin somewhere, and the somewhere grateful living begins is with surprise. Don’t your eyes open a bit wider when you are surprised? It’s like you’ve been asleep, daydreaming or sleepwalking through some routine activity, and you hear your favorite song on the radio, or look up from the puddles on the parking lot and see a rainbow, or the telephone rings and it’s the voice of an old friend, and all of a sudden you’re awake. Even an unwelcome surprise wakes us up and makes us come alive. We may not like it at first, but it’s always a gift. Humdrum is deadness; surprise is life.
So the first step on the way to grateful living is surprise, but not surprise for its own sake. Surprise doesn’t make us automatically alive. Being alive is a matter of give-and-take; it’s a response to experiencing the surprising creation around us, a challenge to trust in life and to grow. Surprise is a seed, and gratefulness sprouts when we rise to the challenge of surprise. And the challenge is this: to regularly lift our noses out of whatever we’re doing and notice what’s happening around us, to set our attention free and let it be captured by things beyond our control or understanding, to stop trying to guide life and let life guide us.
Surprise doesn’t have to start far away. For example, our own bodies become some of the most surprising things of all when we notice them and give them our attention. Think of it: your body produces and destroys fifteen million red blood cells every second. Fifteen million! That’s nearly twice the population of New York City. If lined up end to end, the blood vessels in your body would reach around the world. Yet your heart needs only a minute to pump your blood through this network and back again. It has been doing so minute by minute, day by day, for as long as you’ve been alive, and it still keeps pumping away at 100,000 heartbeats every day. I have no idea how it works, but it seems to work amazingly well in spite of my not knowing.
When I think of it, how can I not be grateful? I know why the Psalmist wrote in amazement, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). It’s only a small step to seeing the whole universe and every smallest part of it as surprising. From the humble starting point of daily surprises, the practice of gratefulness leads to transcendent heights. It’s like seeing the universe through the James Webb Space Telescope instead of with the naked eye. And we realize creation is so much larger and more complex than we could ever imagine.
Living gratefully is one of the most powerful ways we have to reduce the size of our ego and shape a proper, humble relationship with God. “When I look at your heavens,” the psalmist wrote, “the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (Ps. 8:3-4, 9)!
According to Meister Eckhart, the German mystic and theologian, if the only prayer you ever said was “thank you,” it would be enough. In the story of Jesus curing the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19), the one singled out for special recognition is the one who turned around and returned to give thanks and praise. And he did so by boldly disobeying Jesus’ instruction. Instead of going to see the priests, he turns around, praises God, and thanks Jesus. Despite his years of being ostracized and kept at a distance, he throws all the rules aside and throws himself down in thanksgiving. And for this impertinence, he becomes an example of faith.
I believe the gate seems narrow not because it’s narrow but because with our limited vision we miss it. God calls us to open our eyes and see how wide and inviting it is, and to give thanks. And I believe the road is hard because we keep wandering away, being distracted by so many things. God calls us to return to the wideness of God’s mercy. Take time regularly to stop what you’re doing, lift your eyes, break all the rules if necessary, and give thanks.