Thanksgiving Series: Gratitude in Times of Difficulty - a Celtic Perspective.
This blog post was written by former Associate Chaplain, Ali Newell.
Dr Noel O’Donoghue was a Carmelite, and something of an Irish leprechaun, as well as the first Catholic to teach at Edinburgh University’s Faculty of Divinity. As a young student couple, my husband and I found ourselves living for 4 years in community in West Pilton, (at that time an area of urban deprivation in Edinburgh) sharing daily prayers and life with Noel and 4 other households. Noel came from Connemara in Ireland and was steeped in Celtic wisdom and a particular Celtic way of seeing the world. Looking back, I am deeply grateful for his words and his person.
He paraphrased St John 1:1 ‘In the beginning was the Word’ as ‘In the beginning was the Gift’. In other words, everything that has come into being is gift, everything is an expression of the Sacred.
I had spent a year on Iona in the Western Isles of Scotland. It is a place of pristine beauty and elemental power. It is a place steeped in the Celtic history of the suffering and joys of a people. To be there is to stand in wonder, awe and gratitude as the colours enliven the senses - turquoise seas, white sandy beaches and fields shining with yellow buttercups. It is not difficult there to be alive to the gift of nature and life. Many of the songs of the Gaels, found in the poetry of the 19th century Carmina Gadelica reflect that awareness, a deep gratitude for life experienced as gift in these islands even in the midst of suffering.
Thanks be to Thee, O God, that I have risen this day,
To the rising of this life itself;
May it be to Thine own glory, O God of every gift,
And to the glory of my soul likewise. (Carmina Gadelica Vol 3)
In the deprivation of West Pilton, on the other hand, where we lived with Noel, it was a different picture. Could it also be that where life is hard and beauty is scarce to find, where people struggle to make ends meet, and life feels limited, that there too people can see their lives grounded in gift? Many of our neighbours’ houses were boarded up, packs of dogs roamed the parks that were littered with waste. Children wandered into our flats looking for attention and sometimes food.
The surprise for me was that I learned to see life as gift there. We opened the curtains in the morning and the same light of life was rising and shining in on us. The grubby faces of the children held life and light in bright smiles and mischievous eyes. The sharing of struggle in the tenants’ association held a sense of solidarity and the gift of people who cared and wanted something better for themselves and others. We made gardens and cherished the growing and greening of vegetables and flowers out of a desert space of dirt and dandelions. Laughter was often present amongst the tears and anger of poverty that people knew only too well.
Eriugena, a Celtic 9th century philosopher and theologian, said ‘Nature is the gift of being and grace is the gift of wellbeing’.
Nature is the gift of being. To be alive is a gift. Can we spend some time everyday just noticing even in the smallest of ways what we are grateful for – the touch of a loved one, the smell of honeysuckle, the wit of a friend, the taste of a fresh apple, the sound of a blackbird? Do we meet life in these small ways or do we miss life? To dwell on the goodness is to know a felt sense of what happens within our bodies. It is to come alive and remind ourselves of the consolations of life. Just to ‘be’ is a gift, never to be taken for granted which doesn’t mean we deny that suffering exists.
For life is also broken, and we are also broken. We need healing and forgiveness. And that is where the gift of wellbeing comes in. As Eriugena says, Grace is the gift of wellbeing. In his words, it is a grace, a blessing to feel the gift that heals, strengthens and brings wellbeing.
To quote my mentor Noel again, he wrote referring to St John 1:1, ‘In the beginning was the gift, but the gift is shrouded in pain’. So much is shrouded in pain in our world. To experience healing of pain is also to experience gift. It is the gift of deep understanding that can come with a shift in perspective, a receiving of forgiveness, or a letting go. I have a very strong memory of a friend in the last stages of cancer telling me he felt he was dying ‘healed’. This was because he told me he had let go and had finally come to accept the journey to death. There was peace, and in this there was the gift of wholeness and healing despite his physical illness.
When I worked as a Prison Chaplain, I received some insights into gratitude.
In this place that smelt of overcooked vegetables, where daffodils were planted in exact rows, where inmates lived constantly under rules and boundaries, and where patterns of violence and destructiveness were still repeated, I came across pearls of wisdom and grace. There were men who lived life with appreciation of the rising of the sun, of the gift of life itself, of the simple things in life. In that place of limitation, these men were grateful for a tea and biscuit with a visitor in the Chaplaincy prison space, grateful for times of exercise or a kind word from a friend. They were grateful to notice the colours of the sky out of their cell window, or to have a chance to take part in education or practice the paths of meditation and prayer to open them to peace and patience. For these men it was also a choice to live from this place of gratitude. At a deeper level many had little ego. In hitting rock bottom some had found the power of forgiveness in their lives and a reaching into that well for freedom. Often the gift of laughter and a sense of new beginnings was present. There was no defending themselves to find their worth. They expected they would always be hated by some in society, but they had come to find their worth. The goodness of love and life planted deep within them at birth had been distorted and diminished by their wrongdoing, but they had come to see it was not erased in them. They could find that place again that Noel spoke of. ‘In the beginning was the Gift’. In one small group session, when we were looking at who had loved us in our lives, one prisoner said, ‘There was nobody in my life who really loved me, but my dog’s love was unconditional for me’. He wasn’t sorry for himself in saying this. He was deeply grateful for the love of his friend, his dog, for her affection and joy.
A powerful gift to the Prison Chaplaincy arrived one day. It was from a prisoner who was a stained-glass artist. He came to give us his art piece. He had made a stained glass representation of our Chaplaincy building. Our Chaplaincy space was where groups gathered, and individual prisoners met with visitors. It was also the space where many different faiths worshipped, meditated and prayed.
As we looked at his work, filled with light on a table near a window, he expressed gratitude for finding a space in the prison where the gift of love and forgiveness ‘let light into the darkest of places’, as he put it.
In lockdown (another place of limitation and for some a painful experience) dancers from the Opera National de Paris made a beautiful artistic contribution. They wanted ‘to express their deep gratitude and support to all those frontline workers who work with dedication and courage to protect us during the pandemic’. They danced within the constricted spaces of their flats and homes. I found myself welling up with gratitude watching their beauty of movement. Their circumstances were difficult, but their generosity of spirit and imagination emerged through the physical constraint to express feelings which gave hope and support to others. Their piece is called ‘Dire merci’. In dance form they express the gratitude in difficulty that I have been trying to express in words. It can be watched at https://youtu.be/OIiG14Ggmu0.