Overcoming obstacles to the grace of gratitude
In April 1993, my late best friend, Leo, invited me to dinner four nights before my ordination. Over drinks, he told me I didn’t look excited about my becoming a priest. I told him I felt very tired.
Out of concern, he said that if I had any doubts about my vocation, I should not push through with it. He even offered to send me to the United States while I sorted things out. I expressed my appreciation but could not quite explain what I was feeling.
Ordination day came, and I still felt odd. Being the only one of three newly ordained Jesuits (with Joe Quilongquilong and Tony Moreno) from Manila, I had my thanksgiving Mass the weekend after. Then we were supposed to go to Cebu for Joe’s and to Cagayan de Oro for Tony’s respective Masses.
Soon after my thanksgiving Mass, I landed in the hospital. While lying in bed, I tried to sort out my feelings. I was physically, emotionally and spiritually drained.
I asked to see Dr. Dido Villasor, a psychotherapist I had seen several years back after my mother died.
We talked in my hospital room for over an hour. I asked to see Doctor Villasor again after checking out of the hospital.
It was during the second session that she told me what she thought was wrong with me. My symptoms were the classic signs of a burnout.
My first three years in the seminary had been intense, and I had gone on a two-week leave from the community. Then the 1986 snap elections came, followed by historical events leading to the Edsa Revolution.
I was in the thick of things and remained so for another two to three years. My mother’s condition started to deteriorate, and she eventually died of aneurysm in early 1988. All these events took their toll on me.
In less than three months I was due to leave for New York for my master’s degree and asked Doctor Villasor if there was any way we could process my burnout.
She suggested we do a weekly therapy session. I agreed. Then she laid out her “contract.” She said that in her 15 years of experience as a psychotherapist, her role was to help people become aware of what was going on in themselves and in their life, especially the obstacles to grace. Unless the grace comes, the healing, the reintegration, will not take place.
This is one of the points for reflection from this Sunday’s readings, powerfully echoed in the Gospel with John the Baptist’s eloquent and powerful call to repentance, quoting Isaiah’s prophecy: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Let me share a few stories framed in the following: the obstacle to the grace of truth; the obstacle to the grace of beauty; and the obstacle to the grace of gratitude.
The grace of truth is the simplest yet the most difficult. In his “Spiritual Exercises,” Ignatius emphasizes the importance of self-awareness. The twin of self-awareness is self-acceptance; here, quite often, lies the greater obstacle to grace.
Awareness can be either awareness of our blessings, our giftedness, the positives of our life; or awareness of our handicaps and woundedness, the negatives of our life.
To be aware and to accept are both choices one has to make, but the acceptance goes deeper.
I have accompanied several people on their journeys to self-awareness and self-acceptance, and one sees the difference between those who choose to accept and those who don’t.
Awareness becomes a license to continue to live the status quo without healing and reintegration. This is the “accept-me-for-who-I-am” attitude. No problem with this, but who we truly are is not simply what we have become through the journey but also through our choices—the birthright gifts we come into to this world with, as Elizabeth Braddon and Parker Palmer would put it; the hidden wholeness in all things that Thomas Merton cites; the mission we were sent into this world for.
What are the obstacles to the grace of our truth, that leads us and connects us to the Truth?
The grace of beauty is essential. The beauty of a sunrise or a sunset still takes our breath away.
These moments of beauty are far from being luxuries in the material sense but are perhaps so because of the way we live. In our rush, we lose time to smell the flowers. Worse, we fail to see the beauty of the person beside us—those we live and work with.
What are the obstacles to the beauty that nurtures our soul? As the saying goes, silent waters run deep, and it is in this simplicity that we find the most elegant of beauties.
Finally, what are the obstacles to the grace of gratitude?
Last Thursday, I was in Palawan for the wedding of JC Intal and Bianca Gonzalez. It was a very intimate wedding, with family and close friends as guests.
Among JC’s guests were his high school and collegiate basketball teammates. Among them was Zion Laterre, an Australian who played for the Ateneo Blue Eagles. Zion got married to Karla, an Atenean he met while playing for the team.
In the late 1990s, Zion, without any plans, first visited the Philippines for a vacation with his classmate Jason Grigg, but ended up staying here and studying at the Ateneo.
In 2003, when he became eligible for the varsity basketball team after the required residency, he attended the tryouts.
I was then in the United States working on my Ph.D and would come home every six weeks or so. In one of those trips back home, I had dinner with Jason, his father and Zion.
Zion wanted to talk to me after the dinner. Knowing that he did not make it to the team after the final cut, I was preparing my “consolation speech.”
As we got ready to drive back to the campus, I said, “I am sorry to hear you did not make it to the team.”
Without missing a beat, Zion said, “Oh, that’s OK, Father, I can try again next year and just work harder on my game.” This came as a relief to me—no need for a consolation speech!
But what followed left me speechless and cleared an obstacle to grace in my life. Zion said, “I just wanted to tell you that I never realized life could be this good.” I was stunned into silence.
Then, with utter simplicity and childlike innocence, Zion continued his story, his journey leading to this moment when he was able to say how very grateful he was.
Zion made it to the Ateneo Blue Eagles the following year, and became one of its most hardworking and dependable players.
Zion made me realize the subtle obstacles to the grace of gratitude in my life. Sometimes, perhaps often, I find myself too “busy” getting things done, sorting out issues, that I end up with “eyes but cannot see” and with “ears but cannot hear”—with heart and soul, but without the gratitude.
More than a week ago, Thanksgiving night, someone e-mailed me a piece on gratitude: “Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us…
“Thankfulness finds its full measure in generosity of presence, both through participation and witness. We sit at the table as part of every other person’s world while making our own world without will or effort. This is what is extraordinary and gifted, this is the essence of gratefulness, seeing to the heart of privilege. Thanksgiving happens when our sense of presence meets all other presences. Being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention.” (David Whyte, from “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words”)
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