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

Originally published May 2010

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