In his autobiography, Morris West suggests that at a certain age our lives simplify and we need have only three phrases left in our spiritual vocabulary: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! He is right, if we understand fully what is implied in living out gratitude. Gratitude is the ultimate virtue, undergirding everything else, even love. It is synonymous with holiness.
Gratitude not only defines sanctity, it also defines maturity. We are mature to the degree that we are grateful. But what brings us there? What makes for a deeper human maturity? I would like to suggest ten major demands that reside inside both human and Christian maturity:
1. Be willing to carry more and more of life’s complexities with empathy: Few things in life, including our own hearts and motives, are black or white, either-or, simply good or simply bad. Maturity invites us to see, understand, and accept this complexity with empathy so that, like Jesus, we cry tears of understanding over our own troubled cities and our own complex hearts.
2. Transform jealousy, anger, bitterness, and hatred rather than give them back in kind: Any pain or tension that we do not transform we will retransmit. In the face of jealousy, anger, bitterness, and hatred we must be like water purifiers, holding the poisons and toxins inside of us and giving back just the pure water, rather than being like electrical cords that simply pass on the energy that flows through them.
3. Let suffering soften rather than harden our souls: Suffering and humiliation find us all, in full measure, but how we respond to them, with forgiveness or bitterness, will determine the level of our maturity and the color of our person. This is perhaps our ultimate moral test: Will my humiliations soften or harden my soul?
4. Forgive: In the end there is only one condition for entering heaven (and living inside human community), namely, forgiveness. Perhaps the greatest struggle we have in the second-half of our lives is to forgive: forgive those who have hurt us, forgive ourselves for our own shortcomings, and forgive God for seemingly hanging us out unfairly to dry in this world. The greatest moral imperative of all is not to die with a bitter, unforgiving heart.
5. Live in gratitude: To be a saint is to be fueled by gratitude, nothing more and nothing less. Let no one deceive you with the notion that a passion for truth, for church, or even for God can trump or bracket the non-negotiable imperative to be gracious always. Holiness is gratitude. Outside of gratitude we find ourselves doing many of the right things for the wrong reasons.
6. Bless more and curse less: We are mature when we define ourselves by what we are for rather than by what we are against and especially when, like Jesus, we are looking out at others and seeing them as blessed (“Blessed are you!”) rather than as cursed (“Who do you think you are!”). The capacity to praise more than to criticize defines maturity.
7. Live in an ever-greater transparency and honesty: We are as sick as our sickest secret, but we are also as healthy as we are honest. We need, as Martin Luther once put it, “to sin bravely and honestly”. Maturity does not mean that we are perfect or faultless, but that we are honest.
8. Pray both affectively and liturgically: The fuel we need to resource ourselves for gratitude and forgiveness does not lie in the strength of our own willpower, but in grace and community. We access that through prayer. We are mature to the degree that we open our own helplessness and invite in God’s strength and to the degree that we pray with others that the whole world will do the same thing.
9. Become ever-wider in your embrace: We grow in maturity to the degree that we define family (Who is my brother or sister?) in way that is ever-more ecumenical, interfaith, post-ideological, and non-discriminatory. We are mature only when we are compassionate as God is compassionate, namely, when our sun too shines those we like and those we do not. There comes a time when it is time to turn in our cherished moral placards for a basin and a towel.
10. Stand where you stand and let God protect you: In the end, we are all vulnerable, contingent, and helpless both to protect our loved ones and ourselves. We cannot guarantee life, safety, salvation, or forgiveness for ourselves or for those we love. Maturity depends upon accepting this with trust rather than anxiety. We can only do our best, whatever our place in life, wherever we stand, whatever our limits, whatever our shortcoming, and trust that this is enough, that if we die at our post, honest, doing our duty, God will do the rest.
God is a prodigiously-loving, fully-understanding, completely-empathic parent. We are mature and free of false anxiety to the degree that we grasp that and trust that truth.