Ron Rolheiser on Gratitude


Gratitude the Basic Virtue (an excerpt)
by Ron Rolheiser

There’s a Jewish folk-tale which runs something like this:

There once was a young man who aspired to great holiness. After some time at working to achieve it, he went to see his Rabbi.

“Rabbi,” he announced, “I think I have achieved sanctity.”

”Why do you think that?” asked the Rabbi.

”Well,” responded the young man, “I’ve been practising virtue and discipline for some time now and I have grown quite proficient at them. From the time the sun rises until it sets, I take no food or water. All day long, I do all l do all kinds of hard work for others and I never expect to be thanked.

“If I have temptations of the flesh, I roll in the snow or in thorn bushes until they go away, and then at night, before bed, I practice the ancient monastic discipline and administer lashes to my bare back. I have disciplined myself so as to become holy.”

The Rabbi was silent for a time. Then he took the young man by the arm and led him to a window and pointed to an old horse which was just being led away by its master.

“I have been observing that horse for some time,” the Rabbi said, “and I’ve noticed that it doesn’t get fed or watered from morning to night. All day long it has to do work for people and it never gets thanked. I often see it rolling around in snow or in bushes, as horses are prone to do, and frequently I see it get whipped.

“But, I ask you: Is that a saint or a horse?”

This is a good parable because it shows how simplistic it is to simply identity sanctity and virtue with self-renunciation and the capacity to do what’s difficult. In popular thought there’s a common spiritual equation: saint=horse. What’s more difficult is always better. But that can be wrong.

To be a saint is to be motivated by gratitude, nothing more and nothing less. Scripture, everywhere and always, makes this point.

For example, the sin of Adam and Eve was, first and foremost, a failure in receptivity and gratitude. God gives them life, each other and the garden and asks them only to receive it properly, in gratitude—receive and give thanks. Only after doing this, do we go on to “break and share” Before all else, we first give thanks.

To receive in gratitude, to be properly grateful, is the most primary of all religious attitudes. Proper gratitude is ultimate virtue. It defines sanctity. Saints, holy persons, are people who are grateful, people who see and receive everything as gift.

The converse is also true. Anyone who takes life and love for granted should not ever be confused with a saint.

17 thoughts on “Ron Rolheiser on Gratitude

  1. ” “Whatever God does is for the good.”

    “The Talmud (Brachot 60b) recounts how R. Akiva was once traveling. He had with him a lantern, a rooster, and a donkey. He came to a village seeking lodging. No one took him in. Undaunted, his trademark reaction went through his mind: “Whatever God does is for the good.” He set up camp in the wilderness nearby. During the night a wind blew out his lamp, a fox ate his rooster, and a lion slew his donkey. R. Akiva took it all in stride.

    He awoke the next morning to find that during the night soldiers had sacked the village which refused him lodging. Not only would the rabbi have been captured with the other residents had he been there, but had his light or animals betrayed his camp he would have equally been doomed.”


  2. “To be a saint is to be motivated by gratitude, nothing more and nothing less. Scripture, everywhere and always, makes this point.”

    I might amend this by suggesting that Love is the motivating force. Love for God and for your neighbor. Gratitude is but part of love of God.


  3. >> What would you do?

    ATBG, sounds like Job might possibly have something to say. I’m going to try not being one of Job’s friends here. The first thing I would do is recognize that a pattern is in play. Patterns are an indication that your attention is being requested. Why? I have no idea other than that the answer is most likely to be found somewhere inside you, and probably involves something outside your comfort zone.

    If this was happening to me, I would recognize that I was getting the same results from the same action, and I would expect this to keep on happening to me for the rest of my life, or until I figured out what the point of this particular lesson was. Given that choice I would try to figure it out, if nothing else make some guesses and try something different to see if anything changed. And I would be open to any change being more internal than external.

    I must say I’m glad this isn’t my problem, but if it was my first guess would be that I was only being thankful for the good stuff, and this turns a relationship with God into some kind of bargain or transaction or exploitation, the prosperity gospel where we do our part and hit the jackpot in service to self. The gospel Jesus spoke of involved picking up your cross, and he put his money where his mouth was. Doesn’t mean you have to live a life of misery, but it does mean you have to be willing to give as well as take, and sometimes giving hurts. There’s a balance in there somewhere. Jesus found joy in a ministry of hard knocks and stress and a bitter death. Each of us has our own set of lessons to work out.

    Since the pattern seems to be set off by giving thanks, I would make up my mind ahead of time that with the next opportunity I would give thanks for it, and then if the poop hit the fan I would give thanks for that as well. I know that I have blessed neighbors and thanked God for them thru gritted teeth with clenched fists, and I would expect this kind of thanksgiving to be much the same. And then I would wait to see what happened, not as manipulating so called reality to my wishes, but following the admonition to be grateful in all things. I think this was Paul’s advice, and it wasn’t some kind of magic turn around for him except as it gave him peace and brought him closer to God in the midst of a hard way to go. I would keep trying this for a reasonable period of time and keep watch, probably along with your guardian angel. And after a fair trial, I would report back here.


  4. Your story reminds me of something I heard a few years back that still sticks with me. I got an email from a friend to pray for another friend who’d had a recurrence of breast cancer after 7 years of being cancer free. Attached to the email was a letter from the woman, saying how grateful she was at having seven years of no cancer. I was astounded by her ability to avoid focusing on the immediate bad and give thanks for the lengthy period of health.


  5. Grateful, oh my yes! Being open in the first place is important. Then open your eyes and heart to what enfolds around you. Then you can see the hand of God working everywhere, making things right. For example, I had a major stroke 5 years ago, paralyzed my right side. I was grateful it hadn’t happened years ago. I was grateful that God was with me and promised to stay with me. I was grateful for the people He put in front of me, to learn from, to be inspired by, to help in some small way, I was grateful for my husband helping me along the way. I was grateful that I responded to therapy and could walk again, although not perfectly, and lastly, that I could see my past behavior and to make amends to those I had harmed. I call it my stroke of luck. I think being a saint is vastly more, but I guess being grateful is a start!


  6. I don’t know if I’ve ever really managed to be grateful even once in my life: relieved to the point of tears, yes; grateful, I don’t think so. I’m not sure why this is, but sometimes I think it’s because I’ve never really learned how to enjoy anything way deep down inside of my being, or I’ve never let myself, I’m not sure which. Some central part of me never gets totally involved in the good things that come to me; the bad things, well, they can possess me in ways that are total and terrible.


  7. To be a saint is to be motivated by gratitude, nothing more and nothing less.

    Good word.

    I feel like I’ve spent a disproportionate time indulging my anger about one thing or another over the last 3 months or so. Despite my best intentions, it has not made me saintly.


  8. Oh man. I know that feeling. I’ve been afraid to voice it for years, but when I did…it kept happening. I don’t know why it is. Some form of karmic rebalancing, perhaps. God keeping you in your place despite your ambitions.

    I struggle with being grateful. Even as simple as being thankful to be alive.

    Because why should I praise because the beatings have stopped?


  9. Good to have you back, w. (It took me a few recent posts to realize that you were “William Martin.”) You feel like family, and you’ve been missed.


  10. AfraidToBeGrateful, thanks for sharing your experiences. Tough stuff, for sure. I’m not even going to say anything remotely Christian in response, other than I’ll lift you up in prayer.

    Two books that might help:
    -Philip Yancey’s “Disappointment with God,” a book that helped me begin to wander out of my spiritual desert of 5-7 years.

    -Ed Underwood’s “When God Breaks Your Heart.” After living with painful chronic leukemia for years, he was on the verge of walking away from God when he had a semi-epiphany. Excellent book, with some actual practical applications at the end of how he deals with his chronic condition.


  11. AfraidToBeGrateful — still choose gratitude…it’s all we have, really. When we can’t or won’t forgive, when we don’t feel loved or love others, we can choose thankfulness.
    It’s the one thing that characterized Jesus–He was all about giving thanks.
    Just a thought …

    For me, for some reason, this year has been a year of driving home this concept and attitude of gratefulness — not sure why, exactly, but this thanksgiving season I’m very overwhelmed by it…its been an interesting year on so many levels: health, family relationships, spiritual direction/church, that almost anything I have, be it simply my next breath, has become moments of sucking in and out of gratefulness.


  12. I just went to my facebook page and I don’t post there anymore for a long time. It had a memory thing from 2013 as I used to post a poem a day I had written. Imagine……
    Always You
    Humble this man from his pride
    In him come make your home
    Please let your fire burn inside
    Help him not to walk alone

    It’s impossible but you can
    Strengthen that thought in me
    On earth you said I am that I am
    My joy in how you fought for me

    I am broken and incomplete
    I am whole when I bow to you
    Jesus cleanse me from all deceit
    Let your love show me how to do

    When I rush out ahead
    Put your bridle in my mouth
    My own works are dead
    It’s to you my tongue must shout

    It’s to you, all you, always it is you
    The word is love, living and true
    Let your love in me shine thru
    Show me lord what I must do


  13. After literally having virtually every single thing taken away for which I ever said thanks I am terrified to be grateful for anything present. Example: when so many big things were so wrong I said thanks for electricity. 90 minutes later it went off for 6 days. So I said thanks for water. It went off for 3 days. I’ve even had a beloved dog suddenly sicken unexpectedly & die after uttering how grateful I was for their love. So now I only express thanks for things in the past which I cannot lose…which has hurt my spiritual outlook and practice. What would you do?


  14. For some reason no more W to choose from as the comp did that to begin with. Gratitude can be one of the hardest sometimes for me. It becomes quite difficult when all you feel is pain from morning to night and then through the night to be awakened a dozen times to feel it some more. The only thing is feeding some cats on a mountain being the one pleasant thing in a day. Missed twice recently as i couldn’t walk or drive. the firsts in 5 years. Had to have someone drive me as I could stand to miss no more. No vacations for me.
    I find that lately the only thing I can thank him for is getting me through another day and to ask him to help me through the one I find myself in. Not being able to walk and so weak is extremely humbling. I wonder why he left me there and then I realize maybe not what i wanted but what I needed to get my attention. Now I find myself thanking him for helping through such a trial. I find my strength returning slowly but still measurable. Thanks for the prayers and I sure could use more. I will comment from time to time but mostly right now I need to listen. W


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