The debt of gratitude

The icon is a work of tradition. Just as the hands of many thousands of bakers stand behind each loaf of homemade bread, the icon is more than the personal meditation of an individual artist, but the fruit of many generations of believers uniting us to the witnesses of the Resurrection. — Jim Forest

When I took a class on the Jewish Talmud back in 1989 my professor, who was an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, described the painstaking work of scribes who had faithfully transmitted the Scriptures before the invention of the printing press. He held up a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures and said, “whenever we read Tanakh we have a duty to begin with hakarat hatov, to ‘recognize the goodness’ of those countless people whose toil brought us these sacred texts. As we begin the study of Torah blessing Hashem [the Name of God], we must also bless those devout scribes who preserved the Law with great love and devotion.”

The class made such an impact on me that since then I have made it a habit to cultivate a grateful awareness of the toil that stands behind everything around me, including the Sacred Scriptures. Doing that has made me consistently aware of the profound debt of gratitude I owe to an unseen God and to a mostly unseen community of humanity, stretching back millennia.

Growing up, there was a woman I knew and loved named Muriel Vassett. She and her husband were close to my parents and she was like a second mother to me. She was a saintly woman, who taught in Catholic schools for years and refused to accept a salary (she said her husband made enough so she donated her salary to pay other teachers a higher wage). When I was in college, and very far from the practice of my faith, she grew very ill and nearly died of congestive heart failure. She suffered terribly. Then she had a (literally) miraculous recovery, and when I went to visit her after she had returned to full health she told me something that left me speechless. About six months before flying out to see her, I had experienced a completely unexpected and radically life-changing encounter with Christ. As we sat together, I shared with her the story of my newfound faith and she shared with me the story of her miraculous healing. Then she told me, “Tommy, I offered my pain up for you to become the man God wanted you to be. And God received my offering. Be worthy.”

Thirty years later, I still feel intensely the same debt of gratitude to her for the man I am. She could have written 1 Cor. 4:7 and Galatians 4:19 to me:

What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?

My little children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ be formed in you!

Blessed are you, Muriel, for handing on faith to me by offering to God your body as a living sacrifice, for me and for many. Blessed are you, mom and dad, for giving me life. Blessed are you, countless unseen laborers in the world who bring me good at every moment. Only in Paradise — please God I enter — will I understand the beauty of this vast web of life and be able to give fitting thanks to the God who ceaselessly labors to bind humanity together as one.

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. — John 17:21-24

2 comments on “The debt of gratitude

  1. Katy says:

    Whoa. This is a beautiful story. She and her husband sound like wonderful people.

    Thank you for this Litany of Gratitude for all the ways we “stand on the shoulders” (or lie in the crux of the prayers of) giants.

  2. Paulette says:

    You were fortunate to have Muriel and also for Muriel to see the result of her offering of her pain and suffering to God. I hope all your readers will take time today in adoration and thank God for the person or persons who went before them to show them the way to the Father through love. What a beautiful post! We can never stop thanking God enough for the people he constantly places in our lives to encourage us on our journey back to the Father’s house.

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