Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Happy People are Grateful People

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

You may have never heard of Leo Tolstoy or read his book ‘Anna Karenina’, but you may have heard of the Anna Karenina Principle popularised by various authors, which is actually Tolstoy’s opening line for his book: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In other words, in order to be happy, a family must be successful on each and every one of a range of criteria e.g.: sexual attraction, money issues, parenting, religion, in-laws. A tall order, right? Which explains, if Tolstoy was right, why we have more unhappy than happy families. Failure on only one of these counts leads to unhappiness. In the context of today’s readings and to paraphrase Tolstoy, we can say, “all unhappy people are unhappy in their own way, because they have chosen to be unhappy.”

If someone were to ask you this question, “Are you happy?” What would your answer be? Generally, many would hide behind a fake grin and offer an insincere answer. But to our closest confidantes, that may be the trigger to unload our discontent, our frustrations, and our complaints about anyone or anything that doesn’t seem to measure up to our standard of perfection. After that tiring session of listening to an entire litany of complaints, it’s our turn to unload our grouses on to another. If there is anything common among us is that we love to complain. Complaining, or grumbling, or murmuring (call it what you will) is very infectious, and has the potential to spread from one person to the other, until the entire family, or community, or even parish, becomes a cauldron of discontent.

Everyone battles discontent at different times and in different ways. Some are discontent with their marriage. Others are discontent with their bodies. Many are discontent with their career path. We know of so many who feel discontent with the Church or the parish or its leadership. For every expectation we can have, a discontent is readily available. Because feelings of discontent seem normal, it’s easy to miss how poisonous they are to the human heart, destructive of relationships and finally even drives a wedge between God and us. The lie of discontent is that we deserve to have everything go the way we want – it’s our entitlement.

If you think that complaining is a modern malaise, scripture reminds us that it is as old as Adam and Eve. Right towards the beginning of the Old Testament, we read about Adam and Eve feeling discontent with their lot. Then after God had liberated the Israelites from Egypt where they were oppressed as slaves (a matter which they should be thankful for), we read how they murmured in the desert when they were tired of eating the manna God gave them. They knew exactly what they wanted, and when they didn’t get their feast, the grumbling started. In today’s first reading Elijah is at it too. He’s been doing the will of the Lord day and night, and it has brought him nothing but trouble. He is fed up with his lot and he complains to God out of self-pity. On the verge of giving up, he prays for death. In our Gospel reading, the Jews are complaining again, because they are disturbed by what Jesus has said. The last thing they need is an upstart who is telling them what to do and makes what seem like exaggerated claims.

So what is wrong with complaining? It’s a problem because it leads us to forget who and what we are, and more importantly, leads us to forget where we are heading. Let’s take Elijah as an example. His murmuring against the Lord puts his prophetic vocation on hold. He is tired and fed up, reluctant to accept the cake that God offers him. If we read on in the book of Kings, we discover that at the end of his journey, he experiences the presence of God in the still small voice on mount Horeb. His journey was worth it in the end, but without that food served by the angel of the Lord, he might not have made it. This miraculous food is certainly a foretaste of the Eucharist. For many, life seems unbearable. Can you imagine a worse scenario? Yes, one where we are not fed by the Bread of Life, which not only sustains and provides us with the necessary strength to finish the race and complete our journey.

In the gospel today, the Jews are complaining –they are ‘murmuring’ just like the Israelites in the desert – but they are not complaining about a lack of food. They are complaining that our Lord seems too ordinary, too human perhaps? They know him, they know his family. They murmur because knowing all this makes Jesus’ claim to be the bread from heaven incredible. They think that they have it all figured out. But they are challenged by the Lord. They are convinced that they already possessed the truth and so are unable to accept the message of the Lord which points to eternal life. In their restlessness, they have missed the fact that the Law and the Prophets point towards Jesus, who is God’s offer of eternal life for those who are drawn to Him. But it is hard to appreciate all of this if we are busy grumbling and complaining. Such discontent only leads to death.

Is there an antidote to discontent? Yes. The antidote to discontent is gratitude. Expressing gratitude — being thankful — kills the prideful complaining spirit of discontent. It is no coincidence that the word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek εύχαριστία meaning “thanksgiving.” In the celebration of the Eucharist we come together to offer praise and thanks to God primarily for the Paschal Mystery (Christ’s dying and rising for humankind and our incorporation into that mystery through Baptism), but we also give thanks for all that God has done and continues to do for us personally and as members of the Body of Christ. If gratitude is the antidote to discontent, then the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, is the antidote to death, the elixir of immorality.

Gratitude is not a result of our circumstances. Gratitude is a decision and a discipline–not a response. Henri Nouwen, the influential spiritual writer remind us, “The choice for gratitude rarely comes without real effort. But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace. There is an Estonian proverb that says: ‘Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.’ Acts of gratitude make one grateful because, step by step, they reveal that all is grace.”

Gratitude opens the door to contentment. Grumbling and complaining closes it. If Tolstoy claims that unhappy people are unhappy in their own way, it is because they have each chosen to close the door on contentment in their own way. They can no longer express gratitude. Without gratitude, we feel entitled. Without gratitude, we easily look over the fence for greener grass. Without gratitude, we can only see the faults, failings, imperfections, warts, wrinkles and scars of the other. Without gratitude, our loved ones buckle under the weight of our lofty demands. Without gratitude, life seems like a curse. Without gratitude, it’s impossible to do the will of God. Without gratitude, our celebration of the Eucharist will become bland and lifeless. Gratitude helps us better understand our place in the world. It pushes our praise to those who rightly deserve it, especially God. It causes us to focus on the good things we already have regardless of our present circumstances, regardless of what we lack. As a result, it is the surest pathway to contentment. If gratitude becomes a way of life, then every Eucharistic celebration becomes a gathering of “happy people who are each happy in their own ways,” because they have tasted the true bread from heaven, the bread which guarantees eternal life! 

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