by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, November 20, 2016
Many of us cherish the practice of naming our blessings: at the end of the day, around a Thanksgiving table, during a time a prayer, on the heels of an exceptional experience. This wonderful tradition cultivates a grateful heart and deepens our awareness of the gifts our lives receive.
Having witnessed many expressions of gratitude for gifts and blessings, I’m especially mindful of one that took a different turn. Parish members had been invited to name a quality they brought to the life of the parish, something that enriched or inspired both them and others, something that they cherished as a gift. I listened to the usual litany of admirable qualities: “I bring the gift of my joyful spirit.” “I bring the blessing of my prayerfulness.” “I bring the gift of my peacefulness.” And so on. But just as I was getting comfortable with the familiar choices, a voice in the back of the room intoned, “I bring the gift of my brokenness.” The words made me sit up with attention.
Wounds and flaws and brokenness as a gift? Vulnerability, setbacks and failures as a blessing? Go figure. How, we might ask, is that possible? Perhaps in the sense that Henri Nouwen describes, “To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives—the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections—that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment.”
As we enter this season of Thanksgiving, how about giving thanks for something that’s not “the usual”: something that caused us pain or hurt, something that came from our shadow side, something disappointing that we now, with fresh eyes, see as an upside down blessing. A blessing in retrospect, something cast in a new light by the passage of time, by grace, and by our own reflection and wisdom.
Sometimes we call them blessings in disguise, although they can seem like anything but: missing an important appointment or message; being delayed or detoured or re-routed from our plans; losing a job; receiving an unwelcome diagnosis; suffering a loss. These difficult experiences or changes of plans can be annoying, disturbing, frustrating, even devastating, and yet, looking back, we can sometimes classify them as catalysts that turned our lives around, that pointed us in a direction beyond anything we could have imagined.
After the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, many people shared stories of how they were supposed to be at the World Trade Center that morning and how their plans were unexpectedly changed: a woman’s alarm clock failed to ring, and so she overslept; another person spilled food on her clothes, and so she had to take time to change; one had a child who dawdled over breakfast and didn’t get ready for school at the usual time; one man was wearing a new pair of shoes, developed a blister, and stopped at a drugstore to buy a Band-Aid. In hindsight, they realized that what they had experienced as an unwelcome wrinkle in their morning–annoying or frustrating or maddening—was actually a moment that had spared their lives from the tragedy experienced by so many others.
Being grateful at all times doesn’t minimize the very real cost that entering the mystery of suffering exacts–the terrible anguish, the intense physical or emotional pain, the feelings of rejection or loss or bewilderment or failure that sometimes accompany our human condition. But when we live from a grateful heart, we acknowledge that, in spite of appearances in those moments, God is present to us, God accompanies us, God continues to pour out unconditional love for us, and that is cause for profound gratitude. In our darkest hour, notes R. Wayne Willis, we can still use our pain and our loss to bless someone else whose wounds are fresher than ours.
Today and every day, may we move forward with a heart that is aware and profoundly grateful.
Reflect on one thing from your past experience that placed you in a space where you felt vulnerable, crushed, or uncertain.
What learnings or wisdom might you have received through this?
What blessing do you most desire for yourself? For our beautiful, yet wounded world?
Pause at some point in your day to offer thanks for blessings of every kind.
Thank you for your prayer for the evening on “Claiming Our Lives as Blessed and Blessing” with the Rosary Society of St. Aidan’s Church, Williston Park, NY. You can hear echoes of my time with these prayerful, reflective women in today’s blog post.
Please hold in your prayer all those who will be part of several Advent evenings and days of reflection in December. Thank you!
Wishing you and those you love all the blessings of this Thanksgiving holiday!
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