A Late November Meditation on Memory, Gratitude and Joy
by Randy Thompson
Distinctions can be made between joy and happiness, but generally speaking, making the distinction isn’t worth the effort. Let’s say, simply, that happiness tends to be fueled by specific events and circumstances, while joy is a contentment rooted deep in the heart. Like scotch, both are an acquired taste, and both, here, will be lumped together as “joy.”
Joy is a byproduct of gratitude and praise. When we experience something praiseworthy, something beautiful and excellent like a painting or a song or a sunset, it delights us and makes us happy, and we give voice to that delight and happiness. To be grateful is to treasure kindnesses, gifts, and encouragements we have received from others, all of which are reminders that we are loved and that we matter.
Yet, gratitude and praise themselves find their origins and nourishment in something deeper than themselves and that is common to all of us. Gratitude and praise are nourished and vitalized by remembering those things we praise and for which we are grateful. These are the things that we treasure above all. To make a point of remembering such things is to cultivate a disciplined, attentive memory, a memory that serves as the garden soil in which joy grows.
In and of itself, memory is a neutral human capacity. It can remember the painful and bad and ignore the good. The result is a heart infected with bitterness, resentment, and anger. This is a diseased memory giving rise to symptoms of great emotional and interpersonal pain.
Memory also can remember the good and ignore the bad. The result is sentimentality, where the past becomes an unreal fantasy that blinds one to the reality of present evils, especially to the recognition of our own evils of selfishness and hard-heartedness, so that our lives are marred by self-satisfied moral irresponsibility. This too is a diseased memory. But, because it results in self-satisfied contentment that generates no painful symptoms, it is even a deadlier spiritual disease than the former.
If joy is the byproduct of a disciplined, attentive memory, what does that mean? What is the discipline that can shape memory?
Memory, if it is to work properly, must attend to things outside of itself, things that have happened in reality. And, as noted, a disciplined memory has a focus that shapes and interprets all other objects of memory (or “memories”).
For me, as a Christian, this focus is the God who meets us on the cross of His Son. Not just “God,” not just “the Father,” and not just “the God of the prophets,” but God the Father of Jesus Christ crucified, who, “in Christ was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). A human memory which has this crucified God at its center leaves little room for bitterness, resentment and anger on one hand, and sentimentality and irresponsible contentment on the other. A cruciform memory, finally, leaves no room at all for bitterness or sentimental contentment.
A memory set on the cross is set on a source of life and well-being that reminds us both of a God-given forgiveness and the human cost of that forgiveness. To see the cross is to see both great ugliness and great beauty. To see the beauty of the cross is to die to resentment, for one sees the beauty of forgiveness. To see the ugliness of the cross is to die to sentimentality, for one sees oneself in the light of the cross for who one is.
To remember the cross in its beauty and ugliness is to be able to embrace all of life—both the beautiful and the ugly—as an occasion for meeting the cruciform God.
Praises and thanksgivings to God based only on life’s good things are always vulnerable to life’s disasters when they happen. If God is only in the good, then, when the bad comes, God seems to disappear; there is no reason for praise or gratitude. Where’s God?
Praises and thanksgivings expressed from the depths of the pit, from the deep, dark times when everything is wrong, everything is ugly, are praises and thanksgivings expressed by those who know the God who meets us on the cross. Those who look at Friday crucifixion and call it “Good” Friday. To remember the cross is to be in heaven when we seem to be swallowed up in hell.
Those who have such a memory, for whom the cross is the center not just of one’s mental life but the center of all human life, are a window to heaven.
Some years ago I came across a recording of one of the most powerful expressions of praise and thanksgiving I have ever heard. It was John Tavener’s “Akathist of Thanksgiving.” An “Akathist” is an Orthodox hymn form, and the text for Tavener’s music came from a Soviet prison camp in 1940, written by a Russian priest named Gregory Petrov, who died, forgotten, not long afterward. His was a hymn—an Akathist—of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving! In a Siberian prison camp! Yet, the inspiration of this hymn goes back centuries before. His Akathist is a meditation on the dying words of the exiled St. John Chrysostom, “Glory to God for all things!”
Petrov’s “Akathist of Thanksgiving” is too long to quote here, but let this climactic hymn of praise suffice:
Glory to thee for calling me into being
Glory to Thee, showing me the beauty of the universe
Glory to Thee, spreading out before me heaven and earth
Like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom
Glory to Thee for Thine eternity in this fleeting world
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen
Glory to Thee through every sign of my sorrow
Glory to Thee for every step of my life’s journey
For every moment of glory
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to ages
To have the cross of Christ deeply embedded in one’s memory, giving shape to all other memories, is either to be a saint, or on the way to becoming one.
I am not a saint. But I would like to know God like Fr. Petrov and St. John Crysostom did. I would like to follow them on the path they are on, even though I am miles and miles behind them. Yet, I am encouraged to continue on this path, my feeble, cross-shaped memory clinging to “Glory to God for all things!”
And that helps make me happy and grateful.