December 14, 2019

Randy Thompson: A Late November Meditation on Memory, Gratitude and Joy

November Morning (2018)

A Late November Meditation on Memory, Gratitude and Joy
by Randy Thompson

Distinctions can be made between joy and happiness, but generally speaking, making the distinction isn’t worth the effort. Let’s say, simply, that happiness tends to be fueled by specific events and circumstances, while joy is a contentment rooted deep in the heart. Like scotch, both are an acquired taste, and both, here, will be lumped together as “joy.”

Joy is a byproduct of gratitude and praise. When we experience something praiseworthy, something beautiful and excellent like a painting or a song or a sunset, it delights us and makes us happy, and we give voice to that delight and happiness. To be grateful is to treasure kindnesses, gifts, and encouragements we have received from others, all of which are reminders that we are loved and that we matter.

Yet, gratitude and praise themselves find their origins and nourishment in something deeper than themselves and that is common to all of us. Gratitude and praise are nourished and vitalized by remembering those things we praise and for which we are grateful. These are the things that we treasure above all. To make a point of remembering such things is to cultivate a disciplined, attentive memory, a memory that serves as the garden soil in which joy grows.

In and of itself, memory is a neutral human capacity. It can remember the painful and bad and ignore the good. The result is a heart infected with bitterness, resentment, and anger. This is a diseased memory giving rise to symptoms of great emotional and interpersonal pain.

Memory also can remember the good and ignore the bad. The result is sentimentality, where the past becomes an unreal fantasy that blinds one to the reality of present evils, especially to the recognition of our own evils of selfishness and hard-heartedness, so that our lives are marred by self-satisfied moral irresponsibility. This too is a diseased memory. But, because it results in self-satisfied contentment that generates no painful symptoms, it is even a deadlier spiritual disease than the former.

If joy is the byproduct of a disciplined, attentive memory, what does that mean? What is the discipline that can shape memory?

Memory, if it is to work properly, must attend to things outside of itself, things that have happened in reality. And, as noted, a disciplined memory has a focus that shapes and interprets all other objects of memory (or “memories”).

For me, as a Christian, this focus is the God who meets us on the cross of His Son. Not just “God,” not just “the Father,” and not just “the God of the prophets,” but God the Father of Jesus Christ crucified, who, “in Christ was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). A human memory which has this crucified God at its center leaves little room for bitterness, resentment and anger on one hand, and sentimentality and irresponsible contentment on the other. A cruciform memory, finally, leaves no room at all for bitterness or sentimental contentment.

A memory set on the cross is set on a source of life and well-being that reminds us both of a God-given forgiveness and the human cost of that forgiveness. To see the cross is to see both great ugliness and great beauty. To see the beauty of the cross is to die to resentment, for one sees the beauty of forgiveness. To see the ugliness of the cross is to die to sentimentality, for one sees oneself in the light of the cross for who one is.

To remember the cross in its beauty and ugliness is to be able to embrace all of life—both the beautiful and the ugly—as an occasion for meeting the cruciform God.

Praises and thanksgivings to God based only on life’s good things are always vulnerable to life’s disasters when they happen. If God is only in the good, then, when the bad comes, God seems to disappear; there is no reason for praise or gratitude. Where’s God?

Praises and thanksgivings expressed from the depths of the pit, from the deep, dark times when everything is wrong, everything is ugly, are praises and thanksgivings expressed by those who know the God who meets us on the cross. Those who look at Friday crucifixion and call it “Good” Friday. To remember the cross is to be in heaven when we seem to be swallowed up in hell.

Those who have such a memory, for whom the cross is the center not just of one’s mental life but the center of all human life, are a window to heaven.

Some years ago I came across a recording of one of the most powerful expressions of praise and thanksgiving I have ever heard. It was John Tavener’s “Akathist of Thanksgiving.” An “Akathist” is an Orthodox hymn form, and the text for Tavener’s music came from a Soviet prison camp in 1940, written by a Russian priest named Gregory Petrov, who died, forgotten, not long afterward. His was a hymn—an Akathist—of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving! In a Siberian prison camp! Yet, the inspiration of this hymn goes back centuries before. His Akathist is a meditation on the dying words of the exiled St. John Chrysostom, “Glory to God for all things!”

Petrov’s “Akathist of Thanksgiving” is too long to quote here, but let this climactic hymn of praise suffice:

Glory to thee for calling me into being
Glory to Thee, showing me the beauty of the universe
Glory to Thee, spreading out before me heaven and earth
Like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom
Glory to Thee for Thine eternity in this fleeting world
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen
Glory to Thee through every sign of my sorrow
Glory to Thee for every step of my life’s journey
For every moment of glory
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to ages

To have the cross of Christ deeply embedded in one’s memory, giving shape to all other memories, is either to be a saint, or on the way to becoming one.

I am not a saint. But I would like to know God like Fr. Petrov and St. John Crysostom did. I would like to follow them on the path they are on, even though I am miles and miles behind them. Yet, I am encouraged to continue on this path, my feeble, cross-shaped memory clinging to “Glory to God for all things!”

And that helps make me happy and grateful.

Comments

  1. I am not grateful, Lord. I do not know how to make my heart grateful. Teach my heart gratitude, Lord, and help me to know and love you in all things.

    • I am totally saying amen to your prayer Robert.

      ‘Weirdly’ I came across the whole of this Akathist yesterday, never having seen it before. Here it is: http://ww1.antiochian.org/orthodox-prayers/akathist-of-thanksgiving

      And I was going to ask my friends here for prayer, I’m having a very hard time with my mental health currently, & could do with your prayers.

      • Hello Beakerj,
        go to your physician and tell him/her what is going on . . . do this as a baseline so that he can evaluate your current physical health and decide what is the best ‘next step’ for you

        You most certainly will be prayed for by many people here. Life is tough on people. We, none of us, get through it without mental and emotional health difficulties at times. Call your doctor today. I will add you to my vigil list for prayers, you bet.

      • Randy Thompson says

        I love this Akathist, for it is a shout of hope from a very dark, and hopeless, place. Such shouts greatly encourage me.

        By the way, Tavener’s setting of this is not your typical church music.

      • Norma Cenva says

        You also have my prayers and solidarity.

  2. I have come to see that it is a mistake to think of happiness and joy as absolute states which we can enter and maintain, with the implication that not being in these states is some kind of failure or spiritual inadequacy. What we can achieve are moments of happiness and joy but pain and suffering are woven into the fabric of reality as well.

    • Stephen,
      This reminds of a comment Bishop Robert Barron made concerning the connection between wounds and peace.

      From Robert Barron…
      “In the Gospel drawn from St. John’s account (John 20:19-23), Jesus shows his disciples the wounds of his crucifixion, and then he offers them shalom (peace). It is the juxtaposition of the wounds and the shalom that carries power. The wounds alone would leave us afraid, convinced of our sin but not of a way out. The shalom alone would leave us with cheap grace, a too easy way out. And this is precisely why, immediately after uttering that word and showing those wounds, Jesus sends the disciples on a mission of forgiveness: “Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound.’” The Church receives its essential mission and identity as the bearer of the divine forgiveness. We have been entrusted with speaking the shalom of Jesus to a fallen and hopeless world. But it’s not cheap grace that we share. We participate in Jesus’ mission of showing his wounds as well. The Church refuses to explain sin away or make excuses for it or call it by another name. But when those wounds are revealed, it offers peace.”

      • great reply to Stephen, flatrocker

        I read Stephen’s comment and thought about Julian of Norwich who wrote of the God of Mercy, and your comment certainly touches on that same theme that in the midst of our present difficulties we can have confidence that ‘all shall be well’ in the end, through the God Who ‘shows His wounds’ and at the same time declares ‘Peace be with you’

        I’m a fan of Robert Barron’s ‘Catholicism’ series . . . . I bought the series videos. He did some really good work there. Wow.

  3. “To remember the cross in its beauty and ugliness…”.
    That’s a fine art. Some see only the beauty of the ressurection. The power and the glory. Prosperity and so forth. The cross is a vile, Inglourious, grotesque affair. Even our Lord, the man Jesus of Nazareth, is an unwilling participant. It is clear from his words in Gethsemane that he is unwilling. He says, “nevertheless,,,” and continues. To go to the cross is to cede all turf and to drop all protection. It is anathema to us even as it was to Jesus. It is against our nature. We fight it tooth and nail but like our Savior “who, for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross

    • Looks like whatever I typed to finish out my thought I somehow never posted. Oh well, enough said.

  4. Thanks for your article, Randy.

    –> “…I would like to know God like Fr. Petrov and St. John Crysostom did. I would like to follow them on the path they are on, even though I am miles and miles behind them. Yet, I am encouraged to continue on this path, my feeble, cross-shaped memory clinging to “Glory to God for all things!””

    A couple of us at my church like to use the analogy that we believers are all like cruise missiles following a course to our ultimate “target”, Jesus. But we all have different launch points, have been launched at different times, and are thus in different stages of our own paths. Oh, we’ll all get to the same “Jesus” point eventually, but we’ve decided not to worry if our paths don’t look the same, and if our points along the path are different than someone else’s. As long as Jesus is our target, we’ll be fine.

  5. Burro (Mule) says

    Well, doesn’t look as though the comment I posted at 9:15am is going to be showing up anytime soon.