The Courage to Be Grateful

A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.
— Czeslaw Milosz

Easter weekend and Earth Day, a fortunate conjunction—maybe in the turning world it happens frequently, maybe I am just now sensitive to it, but every year at this time I think about the Christ dropping down to hell on Friday afternoon and climbing back up—so far to go!—on a Sunday morning.

There are those texts—what are we to make of them?—in which he harrows Hell, sternly admonishes the inhabitants and then rises, stooping as he steps out into the garden that morning. What did he feel? Relief? Wonder? Or did he take it as any other day, perhaps brushing away the clutching grasp of an awful nightmare, a slight furrow to his brow as he sets about his business? The Gospels are laconic in their recitation, as if any concession to wonder, magic, the supernatural, was to create a distortion field around the Savior. And how long was it before someone called him that to his face?

I’ve always been intrigued by the story of the two on their way home to Emmaus that weekend. Somewhere, T. S. Eliot writes of a third, flickering at their peripheral vision: “Who walks always beside you?/When I count, there are only you and I together/But when I look ahead up the white road/There is always another one walking beside you/Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded. . . .” They ask him to stay, to eat with them, he demurs but then gives in. When he spreads his hands to bless the food they see the marks in his palms and thus he vanishes from their sight. So much to ask him and ask of him, perhaps he was like a man emerging from a cave, blinking and tearing up from the searing gaze of the sun. Perhaps every sense was heightened and rubbed raw; above all, he needed solitude, but had precious little time. There were demands, longings, fear overcome by joy, the joy of those deeply in debt whose necks had been in the noose not twenty-four hours ago and now felt the gasp of clean air bursting through their lungs as the Christ appears before them in the secret room, and no one had moved fast enough to open the locked, bolted, and barred door. And the Christ kicks free the chair jammed up against the doorknob, spins it around, and sits down with a wink. “Let’s go fishing,” he says.

Against all odds there is good news. The news is so good it cannot be believed, so improbable that they look to one other hesitantly to see who will be the first to look him in the face. “Who is the third who walks always beside you?”

What if the Christ were to emerge this season, walking out from behind some dark Satanic mill or more likely, out of Wall Street in the early morning. Would he seek a green place before he trod the highways and byways? “Do not touch me,” he murmured to Mary, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Was it an embrace he needed? a strong handshake between men and then off to the blue world again?

Earth Day, when we find the courage to be grateful for all we have been given, all that has been entrusted to us, all that we have so despitefully abused and yet continues to sustain us. The phrase is Thomas Merton’s from a journal entry in the sixties. He is rejoicing in the fruition of a ten-year dream, a little hermitage built up on a hill behind the monastery of Gethsemani in Kentucky. He can barely contain himself as he swings through the moonlight and the dewy grass to read and pray alone before the sun comes up. To not feel guilty, he thinks, to not feel guilty for all he has been given and enjoys in this moment. To find the courage to be grateful.

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