Faith Matters: Gratitude, love and grief

  • The Rev. Alison Cornich in Sehlburne Falls. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Unitarian Universalist minister
Published: 5/6/2022 3:12:12 PM

(Each Saturday, a faith leader offers a personal perspective in this space. To become part of this series, email religion@recorder.com)

Every religious tradition is grounded in gratitude. It’s the starting point: our felt response to having been gifted with life, with the chance to be a part of this extraordinary adventure of being human. As hymns of praise, prayers of thanksgiving, or rituals of offerings, we mark moments of joy, of having received a gift, or being blessed.

Now, it’s not always easy to feel grateful in our lives, and our days. There are times when tragedy happens in our own lives, or for those across the world — or injustice, unfairness, violations and abuse stand out far more than the beauty and delight of our world. These are the times when a sense of thanksgiving can be oh so elusive.

But many spiritual writers remind us that experiencing and expressing gratitude is a state of mind not dependent on the state of the world. Gratitude is a dimension of the soul; it is an orientation of the spirit, a focus of the heart.

Pausing in our day to recognize what we’re grateful for helps us to be present and grounded, to recognize the abundance which surrounds us, and which we so often take for granted.

A while back, I learned a practice, “Notice, Savor, Give Thanks,” which helps me to return to gratitude when it slips away from my consciousness, which happens more times and ways than I want to count. This practice comes from the work of Joanna Macy, whose root tradition is Buddhism.

First, notice. What’s something that happened in the past day or two you feel pleased about? It doesn’t have to be grand — just, when you call it to mind, you think to yourself, “I’m glad that happened.”

Second, savor. As you recall that memory, revisit as much of the moment as you can — not only who was there and what happened, but what were the sights, smells, tastes, sounds of the moment? What did you feel? Immerse yourself in the moment again, letting yourself re-experience it, perhaps even more fully than you did when it happened.

And third, give thanks. We are not isolated islands of existence. We are connected to, and interdependent with, the world around us — beings of all different life forms, forces seen and unseen, ancestors and history and more, all of whom are involved in our lives. Think of whoever, or whatever, helped the moment to happen, and in whatever way you wish, express your thanks.

Notice, Savor, Give Thanks.

Here’s an unexpected outcome of being more fully aware of, and expressing, gratitude: Love arises. Recognizing the abundance in life, pausing to really note and experience it, slowing down long enough to better apprehend just how miraculous this world is … how can we not also just fall head over heels in love, over and over again? Yes, gratitude for life — and yes, love of life, too!

But wait — there’s more. As love arises, as we really grasp how precious and extraordinary the world is, so, too, we experience the reality of loss. Here’s a hard truth: everything we love, we will lose. And open, bountiful hearts feel loss keenly and deeply.

Over the past year, I found myself deeply appreciating a beautiful tree. It started with gratitude — for the shade and coolness it offered, and habitat for small animals, birds and insects. And as I stayed connected to my gratitude, my love for the tree grew — for its unique shape, sometimes graceful, other times awkward; for its scars so openly displayed; for its presence and majesty.

But though just a few yards from our house, it grew between the sidewalk and the road — and thus was vulnerable to a major road and infrastructure project. So when time came for the tree to be cut down, I grieved. And when I look at the wide empty space once filled by its branches, its liveliness, I mourn.

Here is the risk we face: when our hearts are filled with gratitude, we set them up to break with sadness. It is tempting, then, to avoid the pain of loss by never venturing down that path. We could do that: protect ourselves. Or, we could be boundless in our gratitude and bountiful in our love. It’s our choice.

The Rev. Alison Cornish is a Unitarian Universalist minister living in Shelburne Falls. She sometimes fills the pulpit at First Parish of Northfield, Unitarian, and is a program consultant for the BTS Center in Portland, Maine, whose work is to prepare spiritual leaders for a climate-changed world, with human hearts renewed, justice established, and creation restored.


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