Gratitude Practice

An address given in St Mark’s by REV MAUD ROBINSON on 5 June 2016 

Including today, I have seven more services before I end my ministry here at St Mark’s, and I feel that I want to spend this time revisiting some of the themes which I think have been the most important during my nearly eight years of ministry here.

Today I want to revisit the theme of Gratitude, not a first revisiting, and hopefully not the last time it will be a major theme of services here.

Meister Eckhart states ‘If the only prayer you ever say is “thank you”, it’s enough’.

Gratitude Practice

Writing down each day one thing for which you are grateful. It can be very brief, just a sentence or a phrase. The spiritual discipline comes from the fact that you challenge yourself to do it every day, even – in fact, especially – when you’ve had a bad day; a day when you have to really think and search through your day, to find something that you are grateful for.
Looking for books for yesterday’s worship leaders’ workshop, I turned up the notebook I took with me when Jon Bagust and I went to visit our partner church, the Chennai Unitarian Church, in the south of India. In the back of the notebook I did my gratitude practice while I was in India. I had completely forgotten about the notebook, and what it contained, so it seemed fresh and new for me, reading it nearly four and a half years after the trip. It reminded me of how deep and sustaining a regular gratitude practice can be. I was in Chennai for twenty-one days in January 2012, and I did my written gratitude practice on seventeen of those days. In this practice my gratitude is mostly addressed to God; but you can express gratitude to the Universe; to the Earth; maybe to a person; or to no-one; or nothing in particular. Just express gratitude.

I think it’s relevant to share the complete text with you for two reasons. It’s a practical example of how a gratitude practice can work; and I hope it will be of interest – as a small ‘keyhole snapshot’ - of the life and context of our partner church in Chennai.

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12 January
Today, I give thanks to God to be reminded of the ease of my life in Scotland, as all my senses were assaulted by chaotic, filthy, smelly life, lived out by many people on the streets of Chennai. And among this chaos and filth, the women look resplendent in magnificent saris, with flowers in their hair, as they perch nonchalantly side-saddle on small motor bikes, weaving perilously through the completely undisciplined traffic chaos.

14 January
Today, I thank God for Jon's suggestion of retreat to a luxury spa, where I had a wonderful massage. I find it exhausting just walking through the streets in Chennai.

15 January
Today I thank God for the opportunity to really enjoy being with the church community here, and still have the energy to wash some clothes when I got back to my room. I am becoming a little bit less sensitive about the griminess of the room.

16 January
Today I thank God for the smiling faces of children, and for the lesson they give me by all looking so pristine and beautiful living in the midst of such squalor. Today I preached the sermon (translated into Tamil, as I went along, by Harrison the minister here) and it was well received.

17 January
Today I thank God for the wisdom to know that I can only take ‘real India’ for a couple of days at a time. Jon and I spent much of the day relaxing in a posh hotel.

18 January
Today I thank God for an unhurried walk around the streets, taking photos and chatting to stall-holders and passers-by. Jon leaves for home tonight. Part of me wants to go too. But tomorrow I will go to the Ramana Ashram. I hope all will be well there.

19 January (in Thiruvannamalai)
Today, I thank God with all my heart that there is room for me at the inn. When I rang, they were not sure if there would be a room for me. So now I will stay for a week in a nice clean hotel, a few minutes’ walk from the Ramana Ashram.

20 January
Today, I thank God for the opportunity to walk in the meditation hall of the Ramana Ashram, where these words came to me:
‘In this place of devotion to the realisation of the true nature of Self, it is a joy to walk mindfully on clean, cool marble, with a half-smile on my lips...
... and then to come out of the meditation hall to see a peacock sitting in the tree outside, with the soft evening sun coming through the branches.’

21 January
Today, I thank God to have the opportunity to walk mindfully in the meditation hall, at the same time that the funeral of one of the members of my congregation was taking place in Edinburgh. I was sad not to have been able to conduct this funeral, as I was very fond of Bill, but I held the Spirit of Bill and his beloved wife Frances, who had died about eighteen months ago, in my heart, as I walked mindfully, with Vedic chanting echoing around me.

22 January
Today I feel low - tired and lonely - yet not inclined to strike up conversation with anyone. More and more, the dirt and the heat, and the stench are grinding me down. I spend most of my day in my room, going out in the afternoon to visit the ashram during Puja, and to buy some food. So, today I thank God for the animals in the ashram which cheered me; the peacocks and monkeys and dogs which run freely around the grounds; and a skinny little kitten playing with a leaf, who reminded me a little of my Honey dear.

23 January
Today, I thank God for meeting Hanne, a Norwegian woman, who has helped me to spread my wings a little. We ate at a very nice cafe this evening. Tomorrow we will go for an early morning walk up the sacred hill behind the ashram.

24 January
Today, I thank God for the haunting chanting in the small ashram on the hillside of Arunachala, early in the morning, before the day got hot.

25 January
Today, again I went up the hillside and sat in two small ashrams there, but most of all I thank God for the opportunity to sit on a big flat rock in the sunshine, looking out over the town and the great temple, surrounded by a placid troop of monkeys, who eyed me with interest.

26 January
Today, I thank God for a blessed day of massage, good food and light reading.

27 January
Today, I thank God for an instructive dream warning me to go gently in my relations with my sister, when we meet for my dad's birthday. I hope I can be really open to this wisdom.

28 January
Today I give thanks for a young mother with her nine month old baby, who sat beside me on a very crowded, dilapidated bus on a four hour journey back to Chennai. The baby kept reaching out to hold my thumb, and stared at me with his enormous brown eyes. His mother was happy too, that her son had such an admiring audience.

29 January
Today, I thank God for a small victory of persistence, in that I got the family to sit down and eat with me, instead of serving me, and sitting watching me eat. (After eight visits with Harrison's family, Jon still hadn't managed this feat!!!)

30 January
Today, as I get ready to leave Chennai, I thank God for a very warm relationship which I have built with Rev Harrison and his family. But, if I'm really honest, most of all I thank God that I'm
going home tonight. I'm looking forward to a long soak in the bath, and to not gagging with the stench every few minutes as I walk down the street. Long may I retain this sense of privilege and thankfulness for the comfort of the life that I have in Edinburgh.

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If you choose to try a gratitude practice, here are some guidelines:

  • It can be done in your head, maybe before you go to bed each evening, but the discipline of a written practice can give it a deeper dimension; having to actively form the phrases and put them down, rather than just allowing them to drift through your mind
  • A written practice leaves you with a record that you can revisit months or years later, when maybe it can help you to pull yourself out of a slough of despond
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not totally regular; just start again.
  • Sending your gratitude to someone really helps, if you’re like me and struggle with regular disciplined practice. Form a buddy system with someone. The trick to this is not to make it too onerous. There’s no need to reply to gratitude emails. Your partner knows that you are receiving and reading them. Your partner is acting as a witness to your spiritual practice. You are acting as spiritual companions to each other. Sometimes if you want to, and have time, you can of course respond to particular entries from your partner.

I commend to you a Gratitude Practice as a deep, meaningful and powerful spiritual discipline that can have far-reaching effects on your way of being in the world.

Copyright Maud Robinson
used by permission
given in St Mark’s on 5 June 2016