Instead of ‘Christmas crackers’ the parish priest had bought ‘Christian crackers’ for the parish party. So instead of wearing paper hats everyone wore paper halos instead and received miniature plastic saints, and instead of side-splitting jokes they had to meditate on mind-bending religious epigrams. Mine not only bent my mind but also tied it in knots for weeks trying to work out what on earth it meant. It was ascribed to a certain H Smith (circa 1630) and went something like this ‘He is not thankful before God who only thanks him for his benefits’. I don’t think I would ever have fully unravelled its meaning had I not been to a retreat given by Archbishop Anthony Bloom three weeks later.
At the end of the retreat the sister in charge said ‘I not only want to thank you for what you have given us, but to thank you for being you’. It was a popular religious cliché at the time that usually made me squirm, especially when the said sister, not only thanked me for unblocking the convent drains the day before, but added the ‘thank you for being you’ bit at the end of it. However, when applied to Archbishop Anthony Bloom it certainly made sense, not only that but it gave sense to the religious epigram that had been tying my mind in knots ever since the parish party.
The Archbishop had given us a lot to think about in his talks, but he’d given us far more by just being who he was, a remarkable embodiment of the man in whose name he preached. It was silly to thank me for being me, just because I unblocked the convent drains, but it wasn’t silly to thank him for being him. You see, who he was, was far more important than what he said, though what he said moved me more than any other preacher before or since.
Now I could see what Mr H. or Ms H. Smith meant. If we only thank God for what we manage to get out of him or for what he has done for us then we’ve hardly begun to thank him as we should. He should be thanked for being God, for being Goodness, Justice, Truth and Beauty, for displaying his inner glory in the glory of creation that surrounds us, and for the masterpiece of creation in and through whom we are drawn up to share in his own inner life and love.
When I first began to thank God for being God it was as if I was raised beyond myself and into God’s world, if only for a brief moment where my prayer life reached higher peaks than ever before. If you don’t know what I mean, try this little experiment. When you’ve thanked God for what he’s done for you start thanking him for what he is and what he does for everyone, just by being who he is. Take your favourite prayer or hymn of thanksgiving or praise, – like the ‘Gloria’ from the liturgy for instance. Then recite it slowly and prayerfully and you’ll find you are taken out of yourself, out of your world and into God’s world where you praise him, thank him and give him glory with all those who have learned to thank God just for being God.
You’ll find that the further you enter into his world the more you’ll forget yourself, and the world where you only thanked him for what you got out of him. Then you’ll come alive, more alive than ever before, if only for a time, in the world where you want to be for all time. Thanking God for being God leads into the heights of prayer where thanksgiving leads to praise, and praise to glorifying God, and glorifying God leads to loving God, and loving leads to adoration when we just want to gaze upon him with a profound reverence and awe that takes us out of ourselves, if only for a time, into brief moments of rapturous bliss. In these moments we come to know by experience what Teilhard de Chardin meant when he said:- ‘To adore means to lose oneself in the unfathomable, to plunge into the inexhaustible, to find peace in the incorruptible, to be absorbed into the immeasurable, and to give one’s deepest to whose depth has no end’.
I once took a protestant to a convent of perpetual adoration. Evidently he must have been perplexed to see so many sisters kneeling in silence. What are they all doing I was asked? When I explained that they had come into the Church to pray, he said ‘Oh I see, but if they’ve prayed why are they still here! I remember taking a small group of young women to a Franciscan hermitage in Umbria. The women who lived there were semi- hermits. When I asked the superior to explain to my group why they were there and what their life was all about she led them into the little church and everyone knelt down with her to pray. Eventually after well over an hour she stood up and led the group out. ‘Now,’ she said ‘You see what our life is all about’. Nor were the girls put off, because, as she spoke her face blossomed into the most otherworldly and sublime smile that they had ever seen. It was as if we had been speaking to another Moses whose face shone with the reflection of the God with whom he had been communing.
So you see, saying thank you properly to God can lead you to the heights of contemplation. It is here that you can come to know and experience what St Paul calls the height and depth, the length and the breadth of the love of God that surpasses the understanding.