I want to do something a little different this morning. As many of you know, I went on a Franciscan retreat two weeks ago. I’d like to share some of that experience.
First a bit of context. Most of you have probably heard of Saint Francis, one of the great saints of our tradition from around the year 1200. Francis felt called by God to a life of total poverty and real hardship. Real hardship: Francis died in his forties, worn out with malnutrition and exposure.
Amazingly, given how hard his life was, Francis radiated such joy that people flocked to join him in the thousands. That was the start of the Franciscans.
Almost immediately, three separate Franciscan Orders emerged. The First Order were the ones who wandered around in brown robes, preaching and begging. The Second Order, which was especially for women, were enclosed and devoted their entire lives to prayer.
The Third Order was for people who lived ordinary lives in the world, people who were married and had children and jobs. They couldn’t embrace total poverty or just wander from place to place, but they tried to live in a Franciscan spirit and under a modified version of the Franciscan Rule.
All three Orders still exist today. For the Third Order in particular, there are Catholic, Episcopal, and Protestant versions. I am a member of the Episcopal Third Order, as is Deacon Terry. If any of you are interested in learning more about the Third Order, you can talk to either of us.
Our Third Order meets in Convocation once every five years. That’s what I was doing two weeks ago.
The whole week was great. We began each day with Contemplative Prayer more or less like what we do every Friday afternoon. We ended each day with Eucharist. In between, we heard talks ranging from things as simple as mending clothes to some really high-level theology.
All of the talks were great, but I want to focus on just one, a talk on gratitude.
We know that we should be grateful, that we should regularly thank God for the blessings in our life.
But our speaker began by noting that we don’t always know how to give thanks. Or, rather, we don’t know how to practice thanksgiving so consistently that we become people of gratitude, people for whom giving thanks is second nature.
So, for example, she said that some people keep gratitude journals, where they write down each day things for which they give thanks. It’s a great practice. But most people are most grateful for just a few things: their families and friends; pets come up a lot; sometimes jobs. And that’s about it for the main things most people are grateful for.
So, each night, people keeping a gratitude journal write down, “I’m grateful for my family and friends, and my pet, and my job. And after writing down exactly the same things day after day, they get bored and quit.
Our speaker had a different approach. She advised us not to focus on the big things in our lives, but to be as specific as possible. Today I am grateful for seeing a pretty flower on my afternoon walk. Or for a joke that a friend told me. Or for an especially tasty lunch. Things like that.
The goal is to give thanks. But the goal is bigger than that, too. The goal is to cultivate the habit of looking for reasons to be grateful, both as you go through your day and as you look back at your day each evening. And that, she promised us, doesn’t get boring. It’s fun.
She suggested other gratitude practices as well, other ways of giving thanks in a really intentional way.
One was to work through the alphabet, trying to come up with a reason for gratitude for each letter. She gave us a few minutes to try it out, and told us not to worry too much about Q. But even Q isn’t hard if you think about it or a minute. I am grateful for quiet whenever I get it.
Another practice she called “follow the thread.” Choose something small that makes your life a little better, and then think about everything that went into making that thing available to you.
Her example was the tee shirt she was wearing. She started at the beginning: the sun and soil and water that went into growing cotton, not to mention the insects. Then all the people involved in farming the cotton, producing the material, and sewing the shirt. All the people involved in transporting the shirt to a market. All the people working for the market to get the shirt into her hands.
Here, too, she told us to be as specific as we can, even if it takes a little research. In just a couple of minutes on the internet, we can learn more about how cotton is grown and we can fill in that part of the story. In her case, her shirt was produced in Bangladesh, so she focused some of her gratitude specifically there. She thought about the particular person who sold her the shirt, and the other people she knows who work in that store. And so on.
The point is simple, but it’s worth saying. For even the simplest things in our lives, we rely on the bounty of God’s creation. And for most of the things in our lives in today’s society, we also rely on a global supply chain that connects us to people from all around the world.
That’s a lot to be grateful for. And if we don’t pause to pay attention, we take it all for granted. But if we do pause to pay attention to just how much we depend on others, we are likely to feel both humble and grateful.
Here’s one more practice that she had us do. She passed out cards with topics on one side. The topics could be almost anything. The example she mentioned was concrete. The one I got was hands.
Then she told us to think of every reason we could to be grateful for our topic.
Hands was easy. I thought first of opposable thumbs, so I can grab things. I thought of how remarkably coordinated our hands are, even for people like me who are not very coordinated. I can effortlessly brush my teeth and tie my shoes, which take complicated finger action. I thought of the things I do with my hands that give me pleasure—things like turning the pages of a book while drinking tea. I thought of the times at night when I feel my way through my house using my hands. I thought about touching other people—in appropriate ways!!—as a sign of affection.
For those with tougher topics, she had questions on the reverse side of the card to help people get started.
A pack of her cards is in the narthex for anyone who wants to take one. There is also a pamphlet describing these and other practices, but I only have one copy of it, so please don’t take it home.
I invite you to take a little time this week to try one of her gratitude practices. It just takes a few minutes, and it will help to open your eyes to how many reasons we have to be grateful all the time and for everything, if only we pause to notice. And that is a good way to be in the world!
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan