• cmcsullivan

The headline of a story in our local diocesan paper reads, “Gratitude: A Moral Obligation.” Where to begin? The church is fond of declaring certain practices obligatory. I am troubled every time I see that word, obligation, imposed in a spiritual setting. Institutional power can oblige us, but by doing so, it cannot compel our hearts.

When I act out of obligation only, I can, sometimes, build a wanted habit. That is not nothing, but it is only an entry-level commitment. It may lay a foundation for deeper commitment, or it may, alternatively, form the basis of resentment and rebellion.

In some ways, acting out of obligation is easier. Just do it. Send the thank you card. Show up for Sunday mass. It does not require any intention beyond the doing. It does nothing in itself to engage the mind and the heart with the act of will. Such acts can be done for show only. Who could tell from the outside? Show up. That’s enough. The obligation appears to be fulfilled.

I want more for myself and for my directees – and for all of us. Gratitude is a good thing. Practicing gratitude can serve us and our communities in myriad ways, turning our attention from not-enough to plenty. When I experience gratitude, it can change me.

Experiencing gratitude, as opposed to making the proper show, requires inner work. I have to wake up and pay attention. I have to listen to my life. Where is there abundance, even in the midst of want? Healing in the midst of hurt? Hope in the midst of struggle? This is a taller order than fulfilling the mandate of obligation. It requires time and effort to sit with these and other such questions and wait for God to move our hearts. Do I experience gratitude or am I simply going through the motions?

Invitation to practice

What are the "ought to's" in your life? In what ways do you act from a sense of obligation? In what ways have these actions helped you to build good habits? In what ways have they created a sense of guilt or of "faking it"?

For what are you grateful? Don't be too quick to answer. Take time to sit with the question and let the answers well up. Where do you experience a deeper sense of gratitude, rather than settling for acknowledging just the things for which you "should" be grateful?

  • cmcsullivan

Do you remember Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who? Horton is an elephant who discovers that on a speck of dust there lives a whole world of people called Whos. Horton protects the speck, carrying it about on the flower of a clover, telling all and sundry about this tiny world. But Horton's community doesn't believe that such a thing as a world on a speck can be so, and they persecute Horton and try to destroy the speck, thinking it's nothing but a troublesome fantasy causing Horton to disturb the peace.

There are plenty of ways we might apply the story of Horton and the Whos to our present moment, but here's the one I've been thinking about: In order to prove that the Whos really exist on the tiny speck, Horton urges them to make as much noise as they can; Horton, with his big elephant ears, can hear the Whos, but his neighbors cannot. The people of Whoville spring into action. They yell and sing and trumpet and bang the pots and pans, but, alas, they cannot be heard.

In a final burst of desperation, the mayor of Whoville searches the town to discover if there mightn't be Whos not doing their part. At last he discovers one small Who who is silent. He implores the little Who to join his voice to the chorus', and out of his mouth comes a single word: YOPP! This yopp proves to be enough. The little Who's yopp, carried aloft along with the sounds of pans and pots, of trumpeting and singing and shouting, transcends the speck and allows the Whos to be heard by Horton's tormentors, saving the Whos and Horton himself from a pot of boiling oil. (Dr. Seuss is darker than you remember!)

Here's why this is on my mind: When I most need to pray, I often find myself silent. I wake every day to headlines of contagion and financial ruin, and I know I should pray, and I can't. I open the scriptures and read the words, but my own words fail me. There's too much to ask for. I'm overwhelmed by the scope and the depth. I feel helpless, like a tiny Who on a tiny speck on a flowering clover in the trunk of an elephant.

In the late 1300's in England, there lived a woman who we only know as Julian of Norwich. Julian suffered a terrible illness, of which she was expected to die. In what seemed would be her final hours, Julian experienced a series of visions. She recovered from her illness and wrote of what she saw in a manuscript now circulated under the title, Shewings or Revelations of Divine Love.

One of my favorite passages from this text goes like this:

"Our Lord showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, on the palm of my hand, round like a ball. I looked at it thoughtfully and wondered, 'What is this?' And the answer came, 'It is all that is made.' I marveled that it continued to exist and did not suddenly disintegrate; it was so small. And again my mind supplied the answer, 'It exists, both now and forever, because God loves it.' In short, everything owes its existence to the love of God. In this 'little thing' I saw three truths. The first is that God made it; the second is that God love it; and the third is that God sustains it..."

Thus, I take this to be the truth: I am a tiny Someone on a tiny speck on a ball the size of a hazelnut. Suddenly I know how to pray. In my weakness and my uncertainty, there is only one thing required of me -- and this I can do. I raise my voice with the chorus and utter the only word I can think to say. I breathe in and shout a tiny, mighty


And I trust that it's enough.

  • cmcsullivan

Such strange times we are living in. A couple of friends, women a decade or two older than I, have, in the past few years, faced unexpected and unwanted changes in their personal relationships. Their experiences have caused me to think a great deal about life events that befall us without our consent. I've thought, "So often I fail to act of my own volition while I still can."

Now here we all are, the whole wide world, living with the consequences of circumstances which are beyond our control. Here we sit, looking out at the world (which today, where I am, is blowing with new snow after a spring-like 65 degree day yesterday. The last day of winter and the first day of spring have reversed themselves. How quickly things can change!). The world we live in seems transformed, but really, it was never what we'd imagined it to be. We're more vulnerable, more connected, less in control than we thought.

I keep thinking about the meaning of apocalypse, a revealing. We are in a time of apocalypse, that which was hidden being unveiled before our eyes. How do we feel about what we see? How will we respond?

Our responses will remake us. In our personal apocalypses, our personal lives are remade. Coronavirus is remaking the world, and us too. What we have been was, perhaps, as true as we had eyes to see. It will take courage to take a fresh look at ourselves and our relationships, our work and play, our communities and our world. What is the truth? What did we prefer to see before the naked underside of things was laid bare?

We'd prefer to go back. It's only been days. We can remember clearly what was normal -- school and work, grocery shopping and socializing. All that we took for granted, because we could, until we couldn't. We could not imagine this and it came so quickly. As the days and weeks and, God forbid, but likely, months go by, we may no longer be able to imagine things as they were.

Who will we become in the meanwhile? The fissures between us will continue to appear as one locks herself in the house, another hoards toilet paper, yet another refuses the six-foot separation of bodies now mandated for the common good. Can we draw together as we stay apart? Will we accept that the brokenness between and among us on the outside is a manifestation of the broken places on the inside?

The opportunities dormant in this moment are endless. We can slow down and become quiet. Yes, we can stream movies, but we can also watch the narrative playing in our own hearts and minds. We can be sad and hopeful, fearful and helpful, lost and grateful all at the same time. We can watch the unfolding drama around us and within us and learn who we have been, who we are, who we are becoming.

Compassion. Encouragement. Challenge.

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