A Kindly Thought

One of the most gracious and fully human acts is to give thanks. We do it all the time without really noticing what we are about. We thank the sales assistant for taking our money, the sender of emails and letters, no matter how indignant, even the dog when he moves out of the way. In the monastery, giving thanks is an essential part of daily life, from our prayer in choir to the rituals of blessing and greeting that mark the passage of time and events. At the end of each day there is a wonderful heap of gratitude stretching heavenwards, as beautiful and varied as the autumn leaves still clinging to the trees. But ‘gratitude’ is a formal word, a Latinate word; I prefer the humbler, Old English ‘thanc,’ from which our modern ‘thanks’ derives.

What we may forget, however, is the meaning of the word ‘thank’. It isn’t quite the same as gratitude: it means ‘a kindly thought’. There are times when we say ‘thank you’ through gritted teeth, when we have to muster up all our courage and self-control to smile rather than snarl. That is when I think we need to remember that ‘kindly thought’ idea. Jesus gave thanks to his Father throughout his life for everything that happened. Most of us struggle to do that consistently; but a kindly thought, when a gracious word seems beyond us, isn’t that something we might attempt? Today, as we join our U.S. friends in giving thanks, let us try to embrace the whole world with kindly thoughts. It may not sound much but it is a beginning, a way of being truly thankful for everyone and everything.

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The Art of Contentment

Here in the U.K. 28 November is ‘nothing special’. Our Jewish citizens are celebrating Hanukah, and our ex-pat U.S. citizens are celebrating Thanksgiving, but the average Brit is going about business as usual, which probably means more or less glumly, depending on such factors as weather, traffic and what they had for breakfast. The truth is, we are not a demonstrative people and it would be quite difficult to tell whether we are happy or sad just by observing us. Contentment, however, is something else, distinct from states of happiness or sadness. It is possible to be perfectly content while enduring the most appalling circumstances. That doesn’t mean acquiescing in what is wrong, or refusing to work for an improvement. Colluding with injustice is never right, nor should we confuse contentment with complacency. Contentment means, rather, not allowing what is, by definition, imperfect to destroy our serenity and joy. It is a way of transcending circumstances, allowing our inner self the freedom to be.

Serenity, joy, inner freedom, these are all, to my mind, attractive qualities we can cultivate. The art of contentment is to know that they are attainable and allow them to play a more important role in our lives than their opposites. That means a certain amount of discipline, especially over our thoughts. St Benedict was very keen on this disciplining of the mind and attention. He was, so to say, an early ‘positive thinker’, but he never intended that we should do violence to our nature. Instead, we work at recovering our true nature, our true identity, learning how to be content in any and all circumstances. If you wish to put a name to this, you could call it living the Beatitudes.

If we are content, we are grateful; and grateful people are happy people. So I would suggest that if you wish to know the secret of happiness, don’t make happiness your goal, as though this person or that activity could fulfil all your dreams. That is likely to end in disgust and disappointment. Seek contentment instead.

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Happiness and Gratitude

I used to think that happy people were grateful people, but I’ve come to realise it’s the other way round. Grateful people are happy people. One sees this in the monastery. We spend much of our time thanking and praising God — not for any particular thing, but simply because he IS God. That is why visitors often remark on what wonderfully happy people monks and nuns are. We’re grateful, and it shows. (Conversely, the ungrateful monk or nun is a real pain, both to self and community; but that’s another matter.)

Today our friends in the U.S.A. are celebrating Thanksgiving. We join with them in thanking God for the many blessings he has bestowed on them and through them and pray that they may never lose their sense of gratitude for all the gifts they have received. Today is also the feast of St Cecilia, so we thank God for the gift of music and the way in which it enhances our lives and our worship. We give thanks for the ceasefire between Gaza and Israel; we give thanks for another day to be lived in the presence of God and his angels; we give thanks that we CAN give thanks in any and all circumstances (the triumph of grace over nature). If only we had the eyes to see the huge smile that spreads across the face of the universe when we give thanks, we might try being grateful more often.

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Queen Elizabeth II

Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of the accession of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II. The words with which she dedicated herself to the service of the Commonwealth on that day in 1952 have been amply fulfilled. In a message released for today, she dedicates herself anew to public service. That should make all of us, whatever our political opinions, think about our own service of others. Personally, I am grateful for the quintessentially British and rather understated way in which her Christian faith suffuses all she says and does. We are fortunate to have a genuinely Christian monarch as Head of State. Let us pray for her today with thanksgiving.

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Thanksgiving

The American custom of Thanksgiving Day has always appealed. Gratitude is such an attractive quality — one can almost hear the smile as one writes it. I have often wondered whether the habit of thanksgiving, along with plain religion and and a can-do spirit, are at the root of American philanthropy. Of course it helps to be blessed with material riches, but no one can accuse the U.S.A. of not being generous in its sharing with others. We have a Thanksgiving Day here in the monastery, the octave day of our foundation, when we thank God for our benefactors (you) and generally remind ourselves that everything is gift. That may sound trite to some, but saying thank you is never trivial. The most important act of Christian worship is the Eucharist, an act of praise and thanksgiving, saying thank you to God for the best of all gifts, Jesus Christ his Son.

A Greeting
We wish all our American friends a very happy Thanksgiving Day and assure you of our prayers.

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Seven Billionth Baby

Somewhere, sometime, probably today, so the statisticians tell us, baby number seven billion will be born. For the media, he or she is just a number, something on which to hang a story about population growth or indulge in a little sentimentality lite. To God (and hopefully the parents also), baby number seven billion is unique and precious, called by name to share God’s beauty and holiness: someone, rather than something, a person who can reflect the divine as no-one else ever has done or ever could. This is a day for wonder and thanksgiving rather than anything more trivial.

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