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Open the Heart with Gratitude

Nan Merrill’s translation of Psalm 100: 4 invites us to “Open the gates of your heart with gratitude and enter Love’s court with praise.”

Open the gates of your heart with gratitude… I took this to mean that the act of being grateful is what opens the gates of our hearts. Think about it for a moment, we really do put gates around our hearts. Gates to protect us from getting hurt. These gates whisper to us: stay safe, don’t open us too wide, be careful who you let in, be careful how much you let out.

Opening the gates of our heart makes us vulnerable and that is scary, but it is also the only way to fully live. I can only have as much of a relationship with another as we are willing to be open and vulnerable with each other. I can only have as much of a relationship with the world and with the Divine as I am willing to open the gates of my heart to embrace life and God. Spirituality is relational, so I try to be open and honest I am with my preaching, which sometimes means allowing myself to be vulnerable, and means admitting I’m not perfect. Occasionally I leave church with a little bit of a vulnerability hangover, wondering if I’ve shared too much, but those are often the days when the most people share that they connected with what I said.

Ah, but how much easier and safer it would seem with gates around my heart! I’d be willing to bet that most of us are probably unaware of how gated our hearts have become, how closed off we can be to feeling, to sharing the truth of what is in us, to being touched by someone else’s pain, or the Earth’s pain. Our gates were erected slowly, one at a time, often as an unconscious reaction to hurt. And, as much as I try to be open and vulnerable, I also know that there are still gates that I’ve erected around my heart, sometimes I’m not even sure why, but I can feel myself holding a part of me back.

There are many types of gates that we use to keep others out or at a safe distance: defensiveness, cynicism, silence, joking, isolation, stoicism, aloofness, criticism, a closed physical stance or facial expression. Do we know what "tools" we use to try to keep our hearts "safe?"

When I was younger, I opened the gates of my heart more readily, I believed more easily in the goodness of all people and so I trusted more easily. And then I’d get hurt (ironically enough because someone else was probably guarding their heart and something I said or did or “was” made them feel threatened) and I’d close the gates again, or build more (I’ve decided we can have layer upon layer of gates and certain people only get so far). It probably happens to all of us again and again over our lifetimes. And, yes, I know some people should be shut out of our hearts. However, in keeping out the folks who are likely to hurt us again, we often unconsciously keep the gates shut to everyone, even those we have been able to trust, sometimes even those closest to us. Better safe than sorry, right? Getting hurt isn’t any fun.

Gratitude is the best sure-fire way I can think of to open the gates of our hearts. Gratitude reframes our circumstances, our negativity, and our self-victimization. It gets us out of our private pity-parties, or our calloused views of humanity, takes the chips off our shoulders and brings us back to the Light in the core of our beings. The light we’re intended to share with the world.

It’s hard to maintain our cynicism when we’re being grateful for all the wonderful, caring people out there who are reaching out to help others. It’s hard to get stuck in how bad life is when we’re opening our hearts to the everyday blessings and beauty around us. Even our isolation fades when we remember to be grateful for the memories and adventures of our past.

British author and spiritual director Margaret Silf tells of visiting a dying friend and his wife over a period of nine months. She recalls being lifted and inspired by this couple’s attention to small things:

My friend would invariably say, “Let’s tell Margaret about the things that have been really good during this week.” And I would sit and listen as they recounted a story of someone who had visited and brought them a piece of news or a new insight or perspective on the world, or maybe one of them had been reading something that moved him or her.

Nearly every week I left with a book they had lent me or a poem or an article they had photocopies for me to read. Perhaps they would have received a letter. Or maybe a new flower had come out in the garden. Or they had spotted a visiting bird. Often the good thing of that week was a flash of memory that one of them had experienced or a dream that had left them feeling calm or at peace or simply an act of kindness – a neighbor had called, a son or daughter had phoned, the nurse had been gentle, the mailman had told a joke… 

This couple, even in the midst of his dying, intentionally tried to stay open to life and each other by being grateful. Too often we focus on the negative. We complain about not getting to spend enough time with our son/daughter/friend, instead of being grateful for the time we do have and for having them in our lives. We downplay the good things so as not to be too lost or hurt when they are over. If life is going well, we hold back on our joy, waiting for the “other shoe” to fall. We don’t sing about our accomplishments because we’re afraid someone will belittle them.

Holly Whitcomb talks about a women’s spirituality program at her church called Sisterspace. Over the years it had become tradition to go around the circle and share what they have come to call their “Miracles.” This periodic review offers them a chance to ask, “What were the large or small events in my life that seemed truly miraculous to me?” Sometimes people’s answers were big and dramatic – a loved one’s life was saved or medical tests came back good. But more often the answers were about seemingly small miracles – the first crocus blooming after a long winter, a bird building her nest outside the window. She said, “Most of all, this time of sharing miracles has taught each of us to look at life through the lens of gratitude, appreciating the small things, taking nothing for granted.” 

Thanksgiving is one day, only one day, where we deliberately work at being grateful. But gratitude is a frame of mind. As Ted Loder wrote in his book, The Haunt of Grace, “the condition of our soul, not the circumstances of our days. Gratitude strengthens our soul by focusing on what matters.”

Love & Light!