Gratitude and Service

Hearken, you who are in power over the multitude and lord it over throngs of peoples!  Because authority was given you by the Lord and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels.

Wisdom 6: 2-4

Jesus responded, “Were not ten people cleansed? Where are the other nine? Were none found to return and give glory to God except this foreigner?” He said to him, “Get up. Go. Your faith has saved you.”

Luke 17: 17-19

As the news of recent weeks constantly reminds us, influence and power over other persons is fraught with danger. Both readings today remind us that with power and authority comes responsibility. Although this sounds almost self-evident and even banal, the truth is that our experience of power over others readily devolves into a sense of privilege and manipulation. For those who have places of authority and power in business, in government and politics, in the church, in families and in religious communities, the great danger is to identify oneself with one’s role. Our craving to be recognized and to be significant will often take form from our ambition for title, role, and power. If this happens, then we dissociate from our own truth; we forget our true place in the world.

So we hear from the Book of Wisdom a reminder to those in authority that they will be held accountable. Clearly, it is not merely a contemporary phenomenon that we tend to crave the perks of position and power while forgetting the responsibility that comes with them. In our times we find ourselves horrified by the CEO’s of large corporations who are rewarded for their so-called competencies in managing companies and yet, reject any sense of responsibility for the malfeasance or failure of those same corporations. We are appalled by political leaders who, when confronted with their own failings, practice what has recently been called “whataboutism.” That is, instead of responding responsibly to the matter at hand, they attempt to divert attention to the irrelevant failings of another.

Yet, to be honest, we must admit that in ourselves as well, we readily tend to evade the responsibility that our own places in society demand of us. Even if we are fortunate enough not to fall prey to abusing our authority or power, we far too often hold back from accepting our responsibility to serve the deeper life of others by both encouragement and challenge. One of the many myths of our culture is that people rise to such positions due to how hard they work. The truth more often than not, however, is that it is “the little ones” in the world’s eyes who labor without end. To realize that one has been called to serve the unfolding of the true life and well being of others is an awesome and even terrifying responsibility that can be met only out of the spiritual or transcendent dimension of our personality. Thus, we unconsciously are always reducing that responsibility from one of service to one of mastery. In our own way, we attempt to control or master the situation rather than to serve those who constitute it in all their ambiguity and complexity. Far too often we experience that we want the position and power, but we don’t want to do the really hard work of service that it requires.

In his commentary on the words of Jesus to his disciples which conclude the story of the healing of the ten lepers, Luke Timothy Johnson writes:

The “faith that saves” of the Samaritan reminds the apostles—for whom the temptation to assume the role of “master” rather than of “slave” is endemic—of the absoluteness of the faith that has been given them (17:5-6); so dramatic has been the turn in their own lives that they are like trees that have been uprooted and transplanted in the sea. For this they can never stop giving thanks to the master, never arrogate to themselves the status of master. (The Gospel of Luke, p. 262)

We, of course, are the disciples whose “temptation to assume the role of ‘master’ rather than of ‘slave’ is endemic.” Temptation is a way of speaking of an aspect of our human condition that is at odds with our greatest possibility of human flourishing. As Theodore James Ryken learned at the moment of his first conversion, we can only turn to God, begin to love God, and then put ourselves at the service of God and others when we have been “put in our place.” In earlier times in religious life, many often felt that the way of being recognized and accepted by the group was to be named (or later elected) a superior. Rarely was this spoken about. Rather, it was customary, although somewhat disingenuous, to declare how unsought and burdensome such positions were.

My own limited experience of authority and responsibility attests to how “endemic” is “the temptation to assume the role of master rather than slave.” As I recall the experience of the classroom, I realize that the actions of students that most angered me were those that in any way challenged my authority. Especially in my earliest years, things would go smoothly as long as my students kept their subservient place, but when anyone would challenge my supremacy I would react not in a way that tried to understand them but rather to restore my sense of power and control.

Similarly, I experience continually, even to this day, the temptation to know what is best for others and what they must do. I far too readily am prepared, not by abusing power but often in thought and word, to insinuate that I know what others should do, even when what I tell them to do I am not doing myself. To presume to know in this way is falling prey to the temptation to assume the role of master, rather than servant. To be a servant is to walk with the other as a companion on their way. It is to be a servant of their unique call, realizing that we serve a way that is only known to them, and even sometimes not yet known to them.

So, what does all this have to do with gratitude? For, it is in the context of a story about gratitude that Jesus issues his warning to the disciples. When we are “put in our place,” an experience that sounds so negative to us, what we discover is our own ground. It is not a ground based on our reputation, or our position, or our power over others, it is the ground of our own truth. Now the truth is quite a “mixed bag” for us. Yet, as we truly enter that place and live from there, we discover that it is permeated with grace. The more we abide in our actual life, the more we experience gratitude and praise for it, in all its dimensions. We experience, in Luke Timothy Johnson’s words, that we are “like trees that have been uprooted and planted in the sea.” From this place on the “inside” of ourselves, we see ourselves in a totally transformed way. We recognize the call of a loving God that we are, and for the gift of this call we can only live in gratitude.

Our gratitude for our lives, however, is gratitude for a call. So, the very nature of our life is both thanksgiving and responsibility. “The gift you have been given, give as a gift.” To be responsible for our own lives is to be responsible to God, who is the giver of the gift, and for others who share with us this “love common to all.” When we cease to live in gratitude, we begin to act out our false form’s craving for power. What is false in us mistakenly believes that we come to exist in power and dominance over others. What is truly our life, however, is a grateful response for the gift that it is by being a “slave” of others and their call. It is in our giving of our gift, in our service to the deeper life of others, that we praise and thank God for our own life. To have influence and authority over others will always present a temptation to us to dominance and manipulation. It is by living from our true place in praise and gratitude, however, that we remember who we are and that “the kingdom and the power and the glory” are God’s alone.

We should also praise God to the fullest extent of our ability. The praise of God means that a person offers honor, reverence, and veneration to the divine majesty throughout one’s life. Such praise of God is the most proper and fitting work of the angels and saints in heaven and of all loving persons on earth. A person should praise God with one’s heart, one’s desire, and one’s powers as these strive upward toward God; so, too, one should praise God with one’s words and deeds, one’s body and soul, and all one’s possessions as one uses them in humble service both exteriorly and interiorly. Those who do not praise God here on earth will remain without the power of speech in eternity. The praise of God is the most pleasant and delightful activity of a loving heart. Such a heart, full of praise itself, desires that all creatures praise God. There will be no end to this praise of God, for that is our bliss: rightly will we praise him for all eternity.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, II,A

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