I prepared innocently to listen to a short PBS interview with my monk-friend, Brother Paul. Brother Paul has been a long-time monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where I have taken students who were studying another monk of that monastery, Thomas Merton. As regular readers of this inspirational reflection know, Merton is one of my favorites, even though he has been dead since 1968. To give perspective, Brother Paul entered Gethsemani before Merton’s death and was even mentored by Merton in the early 1960s.
During the short interview Brother Paul used a phrase that profoundly struck me the moment he uttered it. He talked about the “chemistry of gratitude.” I loved that phrase! Gratitude is thanks; thanks is another word for grace. Gratitude---grace---is the response to a gift. Gratitude is a wonderful combination of science and theology; chemistry and grace. It instantly gave me a new way to imagine grace and how grace might work in the human heart. I like the idea of grace being like a chemical reaction. It is a powerful image.
Let’s dive a little deeper into the context of the line with the phrase within it. Br. Paul had just been asked by the interviewer why so many people are intrigued with the monastery and monks, but so few want to sign on for this kind of life? Fascinatingly, Br. Paul turns to the issue of identity to answer this question. He says that most people latch onto careers and a home to establish an identity. That makes sense to most of us, I should think. The most normal question many of us get asks us, “what do you do?” In this question folks presuppose we are who we are because of what we do. Work defines identity. In his typical ironical fashion, Br. Paul flip-flops this. What monks do in a monastery, he says, "is in a sense forsake our identity."
We give up our identity to get a new identity, which really God formulates for us.” Of course, this is where the irony is likely too much for most of us. It is difficult to imagine that we don’t “make our own way.” It is nearly impossible to imagine that if we forsake our identity, God will formulate one for us. Literally, this seems unbelievable! The normal retort would be, “if we don’t do it, no one will.”
So we shoulder (usually alone) the burden of making ourselves. We take on the task of “making ourselves into somebody---maybe even somebody important.” We can be driven by fear of failure. Often we are anxious of our weaknesses and foibles. Even if we “make it,” we are not sure we can sustain it. What if we get sick? What happens, as we get older? The sick and the elderly have a tougher time answering appropriately the question, “what do you do?”
Can you imagine the hilarity of Br. Paul’s answer! He is an old monk and a poet! Talk about useless! He does not do much and what he does, is not worth much in the eyes of our world bent on productivity and pricing. No wonder no one wants to be a monk! And no wonder most of us would never trust God to formulate our identity.
Playfully, Br. Paul tells us we don’t have to go to the monastery “to seek what is important.” I don’t know whether this is a relief or a challenge! Then he moves on to the key line with the great phrase.
Br. Paul assures us that “if you just sort of rest with what you have, be grateful for it, there again the chemistry of gratitude can transform what you have.” Clearly, the hard part for many of us is to “rest with what you have.” This is somehow un-American. We are supposed to want more, aren’t we? We are not supposed to be content; we are to work harder to get more to be happier. That is what so many are taught. Spirituality can get in the way of this. Certainly becoming a monk entirely messes it up!
We do need to be transformed. And that is always the job of God---of grace. And when that transformational process happens, we will be new creatures, as the Apostle Paul says (and as Br. Paul knows all so well). Too often, I confess, I am so busy creating and maintaining my own identity that I don’t have time nor the appetite to let God graciously transform me into who it is God might want me to be.
Oh, I might claim that I want that. But I want to be God’s child on my own terms. I don’t dare wander into the laboratory of God’s graceful, transformational chemistry experiments. I might change; I might lose control. I might turn out to be a miracle! Now that would be something. I would indeed be full of gratitude for this experience.
I know somewhere Br. Paul is smiling. He knows how easy and, yet, so scary this chemical transformation is. But I know the deep gratitude of his heart. I long for that, too.