FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
June 21, 1999
When I was 18, while playing soccer at the seminary, I injured one of my knees rather seriously. The injury required a week-long stay in a local hospital.
While there, I shared a ward with three other patients, one of them a 50-something truck driver who was suffering from an abdominal disorder. Whatever the specifics of his illness, it caused him a great deal of pain because he would often wake at night in pain and his groaning would wake the rest of us. Eventually always a nurse would come and give him a painkiller to help him go back to sleep.
One night, deep into the night, I was wakened by his groaning. Eventually he pushed his buzzer and the nurse came into the ward. She washed his face with a cool towel and then, through some kind of syringe, administered a pain-killer to him. After some minutes, the medication took effect and he relaxed considerably.
Then, just as the nurse turned to leave the room, he said to her in a clear, firm voice: "I really appreciate you doing this for me!" She replied simply: "No need for thanks. I'm only doing my job!" But he answered, "Mam, it's nobody's job to take care of me! So when you do this for me I am really grateful!"
It's nobody's job to take care of us and so we should be grateful when someone does. There's a lot of wisdom in that simple statement. Gratitude – both in terms of our recognition of our need for it and our expression of it – is ultimately the basis of all virtue. Granted this is rather a strong and unconventional statement, but it is a true one.
Soren Kierkegaard once gave us an excellent definition of a saint. For him, to be a saint is "to will the one thing," namely, God and the life of service to which faith in God calls us.
As excellent as that definition is, it needs a little qualification vis-a-vis our motivation for willing that one thing. To be a saint, one must also be fuelled by gratitude. To be a saint is to recognize, as did that truck driver with whom I once shared a hospital ward, that nobody owes us life, a living, service or love – and when we are given these we need to be grateful.
Gratitude then is the basis of all holiness. The holiest person you know is the most grateful person you know. That is true too for love, the most loving person you know is also the most grateful person you know because even love finds its basis in gratitude.
Anything we might call love, but that is not rooted in gratitude will, at the end of the day, be manipulative and self-serving. If our love and service of others does not begin in gratitude, we will end up carrying people's crosses and sending them the bill.
We are all familiar with T.S. Eliot's famous dictum that the last temptation that is the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Gratitude is the true reason for love and when we try to root our love in anything else (shared ideology, ethnicity, gender, sympathy, cause, religion or anger) it will invariably be more self-serving than life-giving.
Real love roots itself in gratitude and gratitude roots itself in the recognition, expressed so well by the truck driver I quoted, that nothing is owed to us – "It's nobody's job to take care of me!"
Jesus tries to teach this to us in a mini-parable which, on the surface, sounds rather awful but underneath carries a profound lesson:
"Which of you, with a servant ploughing or minding the sheep, would say to him when he returned from the fields, 'Come and have your meal immediately'? Would he not be more likely to say. 'Get my supper laid; make yourself tidy and wait on me while I eat and drink. You can eat and drink yourself afterwards?'
"Must he be grateful to the servant for doing what he was told? So with you: when you have done all you have been told to do say, 'We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty'" (Luke 17:7-10).
What Jesus is doing in this parable is drawing the distinction between what comes to us by right as opposed to what comes to us as gift. If each of us were given only what is owed to us, we would live like that servant just described.
But we are given more, infinitely more. The real task of life then is to recognize this, to recognize that everything (life, love, others' service to us) is gift and that we need to keep saying thanks over and over for all the things in life that we so much take for granted . . . recognizing always that it is nobody's job to take care of us.
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