Eight years ago, my baby sister tried twice to take her own life. As I reached out to her and my other siblings, I found out terrible things about their situation. I was devastated and did all I could to help from seven states away. One day, as I walked down the wide flagstones on Duke’s West Campus on the way to a seminar, I noticed the song I had been singing to myself on the long walk across the campus. It was from the liturgy, but only the beginning, over and over:
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give Him thanks and praise.
It is right and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth…
Just before I reached my building, my ear opened to what I had been trying to sing to myself. “Always and everywhere,” I heard.
Always and everywhere became my homing signal in those difficult days. I had lived through rougher ones in many ways, growing up subjected to several types of abuse and neglect. But before I had left for college, I had largely protected my younger siblings from the worst of things. That semester of seminary, while I was working toward my second master’s degree, was harder because it impressed upon me my own powerlessness to shield my siblings. They had reached ages at which, unless they acted for themselves and chose the options we offered them, they would be stuck in a bad situation. I was disoriented by this new type of pain, and I reeled.
But whenever I became overwhelmed or was tempted to despair, the liturgy always came back to me. Always and everywhere give thanks. If that was not an “always and everywhere” time I found myself in, I don’t know what was. It was difficult, but I tried it.
Sometimes the only way I could give thanks was to make a start at it by repeating the words of the liturgy again. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give God thanks and praise.
Gradually, I gave thanks for God being with us always and everywhere. I gave thanks that my sister’s suicide attempt had failed, that she had gotten at least a little help, that she knew there were resources available even if she was not able to avail herself of them. I gave thanks that I had broken the cycle by following Christ, our leader who has truly broken all of the cycles of violence in this world, and would break the reign of violence in my sister’s life.
And I started to see differently. The always and everywhere world had more light in it. The always and everywhere world was full of music. The always and everywhere world lifted my baby sister in warm, strong hands and healed her with mama kisses and daddy hugs.
There I was, trying to reach my sister through thanksgiving, and I reached right through to a wellspring of grace and compassion such as I had not expected could be. My eyes changed so that I could see good in everyone around me. My ears changed so that I could hear the song in the speech of strangers. My heart changed so I could love and let go and love and set free and love and do justice.
When I hear people say they don’t need to go to church to be Christian, I am filled with deep pity. Not because I’m unaware that churches are chock-full of hypocrites, cheats, liars, thieves, failures, drunks, gluttons, and other people who sin less than I. But because without going to church, Christians miss their calling. The work of the church in liturgy that reshapes and restores the world starts right in us when we gather for Eucharist (Mass, Communion) and train our hearts to seek first the kingdom of God. The liturgy does not just open doors and break down walls and mingle earth and heaven; it activates and calibrates our homing sense so we can find our way in this world.
I told someone earlier today that gratitude is my way of being happy. I don’t mean that I never laugh. If you’ve read my book, you probably can guess that I have a somewhat corny sense of humor (and unabashedly so – why else would I write about women’s wrestling?). I laugh and smile all day. But gratitude is my happy. It’s the way I respond when all things are not equal. When a wonderful thing happens or something terrible happens (losing a loved one), my feet start to move to an ancient rhythm. I walk and hum and sing, and eventually, I hear my own song.
It is right, and a good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give thanks.
2 thoughts on “Friday Faith Talk: Gratitude, Liturgy, and Homing”
After my sister’s death and daughter’s suicide I spent lots of time feeling deserted by God. I have been feeling that way in recent months and frankly church is the last place I have wanted to be. In some ways I feel unworthy. Maybe I need to seek the kingdom of God rather than waiting for it to rediscover me.
Oh, Lois, I’m so sorry for what you’ve been going through. It’s hard to be the one who survives. I hope you did not read this post as judgment against you and other people who have a hard time being in church; I was trying to say that one of the gifts we get from church is the sense of direction.
I’m not sure what feeds your soul, but I imagine that doing those things that feed your soul will give you a place for ache to go. Who can bear a broken heart otherwise?
Love to you.