Over the summer I read a book by GK Chesterton about Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi. I certainly enjoyed it, but I didn't realize it would continue to have reverberating effects through much of this semester. Somehow a key theme of the two biographies has stayed with me like a shadow trailing behind me as I walk.
All of my 5 classes at seminary have by now intersected on more than a few topics, and while I know this is by design in order that we would learn better by repeated exposure, I don't think they planned the intersection that has meant the most to me so far. That intersection is prayer. In some form or fashion, all of my classes have dealt with far-ranging things related to prayer, and it is as if the Chesterton book I read this summer is the matte-board to which they are all sticking.
We've gone over the Lord's prayer in interpretation class. We've discussed the theology of the prayers of the Psalms in Old Testament. We've examined the prayers of the early church in church history. We've thought about the deeper layers of prayer in spiritual formation. And we've even tackled praying in Greek class, going through a few short sections of the Scripture together.
While these points of emphases on prayer have not been underlined and highlighted by my professors, the little light in my head has been going off all semester as the Spirit has revealed connection after connection. And the central theme connecting everything together is gratitude.
Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi learned through a long lifetime of obedience to see God in all aspects of life, from the tiniest parts of creation to the loftiest of existential questions. But this didn't just occur overnight in their conversion experiences. It was a sort of gradual process that was facilitated through daily gratitude. As they learned to give thanks to God for everything in their lives, these men of faith started to have the scales removed from their eyes, and I don't think we've had two such persons since who have seen God at work so actively in the world.
If we can't be thankful in the little things, what kind of heart do we have? If we can't thank God for the small moment of rest or the sandwich we had for lunch then what does that say about the alignment of the motives of our heart? Gratitude sees God, selfishness sees ourselves. Gratitude realizes that the gifts of life are from God, and are not to be possessed and worried over, but are to be thanked, praised, and enjoyed. Selfishness might not be as scary a thing on the outside as some of the more grievous, hard-hitting sins, but I venture to say (from experience) that it is the most debilitating disposition for the disciple of Christ to have.
Selfishness turns us sour from the inside out and affects every part of our lives. It grows scales over our eyes that keep us from seeing our brothers and sisters in need, and keeps us as well from seeing the beautiful gifts that God has given us through creation and through his more personal daily activity. In short, selfishness is a disease, and must be purposely fought. The great antidote to selfishness comes in the unassuming form of gratitude. Thanking God for the good times and the bad, for our very breath in the morning and the gifts he bestows upon us every day, for the big and the small. Slowly gratitude works inside of us to bring us new eyes and new hearts, through the wondrous work of the Spirit, and we begin to walk down the same road that the great disciples of our faith (including Aquinas and Francis) journeyed upon, and it makes all the difference in the world.