Excerpt from Spiritual Formation

The opposite of resentment is gratitude (from the Latin gratia = favor). Gratitude is more than an occasional thanks be to God.’ Gratitude is the attitude that enables us to let go of anger, receive the hidden gifts of those we want to serve, and make these gifts visible to the community as a source of celebration.

Gratitude is at the heart of celebration and ministry.

When I think about what it means to live and act in the name of Jesus, I realize that what I have to offer to others is not my intelligence, skill, power, influence, or connections, but my own human brokenness, through which the love of God can manifest itself. Ministry is entering with our human brokenness into communion with others and speaking a word of hope. The great paradox of ministry is that when we minister in our weakness, we receive from those to whom we go. The more in touch we are with our own need for healing and salvation, the more open we are to receiving in gratitude what others have to offer us.

When I was studying Spanish in Cochabamba, Bolivia, I met Lucha, one of the maids working in the Instituto de Idiomas. We did not speak about God or religion, but her smile, her kindness, the way she corrected my Spanish, and her stories about her children created a sense of spiritual jealousy in me. I kept thinking: I wish I had the purity of heart of this woman. I wish I could be as simple, open, and gentle as she is. I wish I could be as in touch.’ But then I realized that maybe she didn’t know what she was giving me. Thus my ministry to her was to allow her to show me the Lord in her own gentle manner, and gratefully to acknowledge what I was receiving.

True liberation is freeing people from the bonds that have prevented them from giving their gifts to others. This is true not only for individual people but also — particularly — for certain ethnic, cultural, or marginalized groups. What does mission to the Indians or Bolivians or disabled persons really mean? Isn’t it foremost to discover with them their own deep religiosity, their profound faith in God’s active presence in history, and their understanding of the mystery of nature that surrounds them?

It is hard for me to accept that the best I can do is probably not give but receive. By my receiving in a true and open way, those who give to me can become aware of their own gifts. After all, we come to recognize our own gifts in the eyes of those who receive them gratefully. Gratitude thus becomes the central virtue of a Christian. The Greek word charis means gift’ or grace.’ And what else is the Eucharistic life but a life of gratitude?

Moving from Resentment to Gratitude

Moving away from resentment requires moving toward something more life giving, and that something is the attitude of gratitude. Resentment blocks action; gratitude lets us move forward toward new possibilities. Resentment makes us cling to negative feelings; gratitude allows us to let go. Resentment makes us prisoners of our passions. Gratitude helps us to transcend our compulsions to follow our vocation. Resentment exhausts us by complicated jealousies and ambiguities, stirring up destructive desires for revenge. Gratitude takes our fatigue away and gives us new vitality and enthusiasm. Resentment entangles us in endless distractions, pulling us down to banal preoccupations. Gratitude anchors our deepest self beyond this world and allows us to be involved without losing ourselves.

How can we break through the chains of resentment and free ourselves from the passion that paralyzes us? Resentment has very deep roots in our human condition and is not easily cleared away. But once we confess our resentments within a safe and supportive faith community, we create space for forgiveness and freedom. When this happens, God’s liberating grace is able to make all things new. We learn how to sing a new song and develop a new spirit of thanksgiving in which all of life can be received as a gift.

Spiritual formation is the way by which resentment can slowly be transformed into gratitude. Through the spiritual practice of letting go of jealousy and bitterness and forgiving and affirming others, we can make rivals into friends and competitors into companions on the way to true greatness. Servanthood might sound like a pious idea, but it really asks for the humble recognition that our life is not our own to be defended but a gift to be shared. All we have has been given to us. Our part is to be grateful and to give thanks.

Excerpted from Spiritual Formation by Henri Nouwen. HarperCollins 2010.

Photo by Aida L on Unsplash

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