Thankful For What We Do Not Own

JOSEPH GALLAGHER

November 22, 1990|By Joseph Gallagher

"GRATITUDE IS the least of the virtues; the lack of it, the worst of the vices.'' The proverb is perfect Thanksgiving Day material. I take it to mean this: We are all recipients of so many favors, so many graces, that being grateful should be as natural as breathing. Not being grateful is a kind of spiritual self-asphyxiation.

What many of us are especially thankful for are those special moments of love, of joy, of blissful insight which can change us forever. Though the consequences are often enduring, the experiences themselves are typically brief. Whence the saying: Happiness is more a matter of instants than of hours. Whence also the ingenious title of one of Robert Frost's poems: ''Happiness Makes Up In Height For What It Lacks In Length.''

Especially in view of life's horrors, we understandably try to cling to such moments, or to recreate them by sheer will power. We are then in danger of growing ungrateful when we don't succeed. In my recent reading, two episodes spoke directly to such situations.

One day, as the poet Allen Ginsberg was reading the ''Ah! Sunflower'' poem of William Blake, he had a profound experience, and heard an ancient voice speaking the poem aloud. ''The peculiar quality of the voice was something unforgettable because it was as if God had a human voice, with all the tenderness and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son.'' Though it continued to transform his life, the vision faded. For 15 years, seeking to annihilate his consciousness with mind-altering drugs, the author of ''Howl'' and ''Kaddish'' tried to recreate the experience.

Then, on a visit to Tibet, he spoke to the head of the oldest Buddhist sect there. Told of the poet's quest, the monk advised: ''If you see something horrible, don't cling to it. If you see something beautiful, don't cling to it.'' Mulling over these words, Ginsberg realized he had become hopelessly attached to his Blakean vision and to the idea of a widened consciousness. When he finally severed this attachment, it transformed his life again. William Blake had already warned: ''He who binds to himself a Joy/ Doth the winged life destroy.'' Wiser, ''he who kisses the Joy as it flies.'' (Barry Miles, ''Ginsberg,'' pp. 104, 309).

Twenty years earlier in Amsterdam, a remarkable Jewish woman named Etty Hillesum wrote these words in her diary (later published as ''An Interrupted Life,'' pp. 13-15): ''I have hit upon something essential. Whenever I saw a beautiful flower, what I longed to do with it was press it to my heart, or eat it all up. . . . I yearned physically for all I thought beautiful, wanted to own it. Hence that painful longing that could never be satisfied.''

A few days earlier, however, this city-mate and contemporary of the younger Anne Frank had reacted differently to a mysteriously lovely landscape in the dusk: ''In the past all that beauty would have gone like a stab to the heart. . . . I would have felt the need to write, to compose verses, but the words would still have refused to come. I would have felt utterly miserable.''

Now, however -- thanks to some grace -- ''I was just as deeply moved . . . but somehow I no longer wanted to own the landscape. I felt that God's world was beautiful, despite everything, but its beauty now filled me with joy. A thousand tyrannical chains were broken, and I breathed freely again and felt strong and looked about with shining eyes. And now I don't want to own anything any more and am free, now I suddenly own everything, now my inner riches are immeasurable.''

She no longer asked her lover: ''Do you still love me? Do you still think I am special?'' ''That too can be a kind of clinging, a physical clinging to what can never be physical. And now I live and breathe through my 'soul,' if I may use that discredited word.''

So, we can start out by being grateful for what we own, and become even more thankful for what we do not own, even most thankful because we do not own. Such are the paradoxes of the upward spiritual journey, of which thankfulness is the oxygen. Today is as blessed an occasion as any for breathing even more deeply than usual.

Father Gallagher is a priest of the Baltimore Archdiocese.

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