How to Be Spiritual: Gratitude and Wonder

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Years ago, a crucial realization dawned on me – thanks to Henri Nouwen. Half-done reading his incandescent The Return of the Prodigal Son, I halted and re-read multiple times his insistence that gratitude isn’t a spontaneous mood you feel (or don’t), but a decision:

“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of complaint. I can choose to speak about goodness and beauty, even when my inner eye has noticed someone to accuse or something to call ugly.” Indeed, to choose gratitude requires real effort – “but each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer.”

More recently read page proofs of Kate Bowler’s forthcoming book, Have a Beautiful, Terrible Day! – and was struck by her thoughts about Wonder. Your mood isn’t sunny; complaints pop up all around; you feel weary, or maybe bored. “In moments of dull despair, I pray for Wonder.” She repeats for us a quote by Diane Ackerman she keeps nearby: “Wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table. Even a tiny fleck of it stops time.” Can we choose wonder?

We’re swimming in it: “The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders” (Psalm 65:8). Look around, let time stop, and notice: the earth is pushing up life, a dog wallers on his back, a child skips by, a cloud hovers; a color, a smell, your breathing. Kate again, waxing poetic: “Let the sun come down from the sky and touch me, and I will walk out to greet it, feeling the low murmur of the ground beneath my feet. And as earth makes its creaky turn toward night, let the day fall in behind us. ‘What next?’ we will say to the night sky, before we close the door and consider its answer tomorrow.” It’s really a choice: the spiritual life learns to choose Wonder.

I love these two notions: you choose gratitude, you choose wonder. They aren’t just moods that strike (or don’t). This sounds like the right recipe – but isn’t it easier for those with sunny dispositions? Those more given to melancholy, or dealing with horrific problems and stress? It’s a tough slog, a marathon of a process, worthwhile but never easy, flexing the part of you that chooses, getting stronger at choosing gratitude and wonder.

And we must be careful: it’s not merely thinking positively. I recall Professor Stuart Henry lecturing on the fame and popularity of Norman Vincent Peale and his cheerful gospel, The Power of Positive Thinking, summing up his critique with “Paul is appealing, and Peale is appalling.” What’s appalling? The pressure is on me; it’s all up to you! Sure, I might develop the habit of turning away from my negativity. This may be humanly possible.

What’s more durable, realistic and hopeful is the Bible’s vision: we are beautiful, made in God’s image, but we are broken, we’re flawed and fearful; but then there’s mercy, which heals. I can be grateful because God is nearby, sustaining me; I can be moved to wonder, not because I have a keen eye for it, but because God never stops lavishing me and God’s world with wonders I’m free to pause from my busyness and simply behold – because God’s got me.

Try this: pinch yourself every time today you notice the option to choose gratitude over complaint, and every time there’s something to pause and marvel over. You’ll be sore by day’s end – and learning the disciplines of Gratitude and Wonder.