Surprise and Gratefulness

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by Brother David Steindl-Rast


rainbow always comes as a surprise. Not that it cannot be predicted. Surprising sometimes means unpredictable, but it often means more. Surprising in the full sense means somehow gratuitous. Even the predictable turns into surprise the moment we stop taking it for granted. If we knew enough, everything would be predictable, and yet everything would remain gratuitous. If we knew how the whole universe worked, we would still be surprised that there was a universe at all. Predictable it may be, yet all the more surprising.

photo by Chizen Brown, MRO

photo by Chizen Brown, MRO

Our eyes are opened to that surprise character of the world around us the moment we wake up from taking things for granted. Rainbows have a way of waking us up. A complete stranger might pull your sleeve and point to the sky: “Did you notice the rainbow?” Bored and boring adults become excited children. We might not even understand what it was that startled us when we saw that rainbow. What was it? Gratuitousness burst in on us, the gratuitousness of all there is. When this happens, our spontaneous response is surprise. Plato recognized that surprise as the beginning of philosophy. It is also the beginning of gratefulness.

A close brush with death can trigger that surprise. For, me that came early in life. Growing up in Nazi-occupied Austria, I knew air raids from daily experience. And an air raid can be an eye-opener. One time, I remember, the bombs started falling as soon as the warning sirens went off. I was on the street. Unable to find an air raid shelter quickly, I rushed into a church only a few steps away. To shield myself from shattered glass and falling debris, I crawled under a pew and hid my face in my hands. But as bombs exploded outside and the ground shook under me, I felt sure that the vaulted ceiling would cave in any moment and bury me alive. Well, my time had not yet come. A steady tone of the siren announced that the danger was over. And there I was, stretching my back, dusting off my clothes, and stepping out into a glorious May morning. I was alive. Surprise! The buildings I had seen less than an hour ago were now smoking mounds of rubble. But that there was anything at all struck me as an overwhelming surprise. My eyes fell on a few square feet of lawn in the midst of all this destruction. It was as if a friend had offered me an emerald in the hollow of his hand. Never before or after have I seen grass so surprisingly green.

Surprise is no more than a beginning of that fullness we call gratefulness. But a beginning it is. Do we find it difficult to imagine that gratefulness could ever become our basic attitude toward life? In moments of surprise we catch at least a glimpse of the joy to which gratefulness opens the door. More than that—in moments of surprise we already have a foot in the door. There are some who claim not to know gratefulness. But is there anyone who never knew surprise? Does springtime not surprise us anew each year, or that expanse of the bay opening up as we come around the bend of the road? Is it not a surprise each time we drive that way?

Things and events that trigger surprise are merely catalysts. I started with rainbows because they do the trick for most of us, but there are more personal catalysts. We have to find our own, each one of us. No matter how often that cardinal comes for the cracked corn scattered on a rock for the birds in winter, it is a flash of surprise. I expect him. I’ve come to even know his favorite feeding times. I can hear him chirping long before he comes in sight. But when that red streak shoots down on the rock like lightning on Elijah’s altar, I know what e.e. cummings means: “The eyes of my eyes are opened.”

Once we wake up in this way, we can strive to stay awake. Then we can allow ourselves to become more and more awakened. Waking up is a process. In the morning it is quite a different process for different people. Some of us wake up with a start and are wide awake for the rest of the day. They are lucky. Others have to do it stage by stage, cup of coffee by cup of coffee. What counts is that we don’t go back to bed again. What counts on your path to fulfillment is that we remember the great truth that moments of surprise want to teach us: Everything is gratuitous, everything is gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is the measure of our gratefulness. And gratefulness is the measure of our aliveness. Are we not dead to whatever we take for granted? Surely to be numb is to be dead. For those who awaken to life through surprise, death lies behind, not ahead. To live life open for surprise, in spite of all the dying which living implies, makes us ever more alive.

There are degrees of grateful wakefulness. Our intellect, our will, our emotions must wake up. Let us take a closer look at this process of awakening. It is the growth process of gratefulness.

A single crocus blossom ought to be enough to convince our heart that springtime, no matter how predictable, is somehow a gift, gratuitous, gratis, a grace. We know this with a knowledge that goes beyond our intellect. Yet our intellect shares in it. We cannot be grateful unless our intellect plays its role. We must recognize the gift as gift, and only our intellect can do that.

For some people this is not easy. There are those who are simply too dull, too slow witted, perhaps too lazy to recognize anything as a gift. Their intellect is not alert enough. They take everything for granted. They go through life in a daze. It takes a certain intellectual sharpness to be grateful. But there are those with the opposite bent of mind, people who rely exclusively on their intellect. Those clever ones, too, may have a hard time with gratefulness. If one’s intellect insists on finding solid proof that a gift is truly a gift, then one is stuck. There is always the possibility that what looks like a gift is really a trap, a bait, a bribe. Just listen to some of the comments one hears as Christmas presents are being unwrapped. “Well, look at this! Why would the Joneses send us an expensive present like this? I wonder what favor they are going to ask from us in the new year!” Who can prove that there are absolutely no strings attached? Our heart longs for the surprise that a gift is truly a free gift. But our proud intellect balks at surprise, wants to explain it, wants to explain it away.

Intellect by itself only gets us so far. It has a share in gratefulness, but only a share. Our intellect should be alert enough to look through the predictable husks of things to their core and find there a kernel of surprise. That in itself is a demanding task. But truthfulness also demands that the intellect be sufficiently humble, that is, sufficiently down to earth to know its limits. The gift character of everything can be recognized, but it cannot be proved—not by the intellect alone, at any rate. Proof lies in living. And there is more to living than the intellect can grasp.

Our will also must play its part. It too belongs to the fullness of gratefulness. It is the task of the intellect to recognize something as a gift, but the will must acknowledge its gift character. Recognition and acknowledgment are two different tasks. We can recognize something against our will. The will may refuse to acknowledge what the intellect sees. Awakened by surprise, we can recognize that what we call a “given” world is truly given. For we have not made it, earned it, or deserved it; chances are that we have not even fully approved of it. What confronts us is a given reality, and we recognize it as given. But only if we acknowledge this gift will our recognition lead to gratefulness. And acknowledging a gift may be far more difficult than recognizing it.

For example, take the weather. Everyone is aware that the weather on a given day is a given fact, and no amount of complaining about it will change it. But it makes a difference whether we merely recognize the weather as a given fact or willingly accept it as, in fact, given—that is, as gift. W.H. Auden observes:

... weather
Is what nasty people are
Nasty about, and the nice
Show a common joy in observing.

In recognizing what kind of weather we’ve got, the nice and the nasty agree. But from there on they part company. What makes the nice ones joyful. They are like children unwrapping a gift. But the nasty ones won’t acknowledge it as gift.

Why is it so difficult to acknowledge a gift as gift? Here is the reason. When I admit that something is a gift, I admit my dependence on the giver. This may not sound that difficult, but there is something within us that bristles at the idea of dependence. We want to get along by ourselves. Yet a gift is something we simply cannot give to ourselves—not as a gift, at any rate. I can buy the same thing or even something better. But it will not be a gift if I procure it for myself. I can go out and treat myself to a magnificent treat. I can even be grateful later for the good time I had. But can I be grateful to myself for having treated myself so well? That would be neck-breaking mental acrobatics. Gratefulness always goes beyond myself. For what makes something a gift is precisely that it is given. And the receiver depends on the giver.

This dependence is always there when a gift is given and received. Even a mother depends on her child for the smallest gift. Suppose a little boy buys his mother a bunch of daffodils. He is giving nothing that he has not already received. His mother gave him not only the money he spent, but his very life and the upbringing that made him generous. Yet his gift is something that she depends on his giving. There is no other way she could receive it as a gift. And she finds more joy in that dependence than in the gift itself. Gift giving is a celebration of the bond that unites giver and receiver. That bond is gratefulness.

When I acknowledge a gift received, I acknowledge a bond that binds me to the giver. But we tend to fear the obligations this bond entails. When I learned English thirty years ago, it was current usage in America to express one’s thanks by saying “very much obliged.” Hardly anyone uses that expression today. Why not? We simply do not want to be obliged. We want to be self-sufficient. Our language gives us away.

There is, of course, a healthy side to our desire for independence. We want to fend for ourselves. Without that desire we would not outgrow the stage of being spoon-fed. And to outgrow that state we had to go through the phase of ending a meal with oatmeal on our nose, chin, ears, and bib. But even after we have learned to feed ourselves, it might be assumed that we would still have sense enough to let a nurse feed us if that became necessary. To grow up means learning to help ourselves, but also to accept help when we need it. Some people never seem to grow beyond the state of “let me do it alone.” But compassionate eyes see through the outer stubborn independence and recognize within a child in a high chair, with oatmeal from head to toe.

In a sense, it is correct to fear dependence. Mere dependence is slavery. But independence is an illusion. If we really had to choose between dependence and independence, we would be in trouble. The choice is actually between alienation and interdependence. Independence is alienation. It cuts us off from others. But mere dependence, in a subtle way, is alienation too. For mere dependence is slavery; and the slave is an alien. But interdependence joins us with others through the bond of a joyful give-and-take, a bond of belonging. Dependence ties us with ties of slavery. Independence ties us with ties of illusion. But the bonds of interdependence are ties that set us free. One single gift acknowledged in gratefulness has power to dissolve the ties of our alienation, and we are home free—home where all depend on all.

The interdependence of gratefulness is truly mutual. The receiver of the gift depends on the giver. Obviously so. But the circle of gratefulness is incomplete until the giver of the gift becomes the receiver: a receiver of thanks. When we give thanks, we give something greater than the gift we received, whatever it was. The greatest gift one can give is thanksgiving. In giving gifts, we give what we can spare, but in giving thanks we give ourselves. One who says “Thank you” to another really says, “We belong together.” Giver and thanksgiver belong together. The bond that unites them frees them from alienation. Does our society suffer from so much alienation because we fail to cultivate gratefulness?

The moment I acknowledge the gift as gift and so acknowledge my dependence, I am free—free to go forward into full gratefulness. This fullness comes with the joy of appreciating the gift. Appreciation is a response of our feelings. Our intellect recognizes the gift as a gift, our will acknowledges it, but only our feelings respond with joy and so fully appreciate the gift.

No matter how dull or intellectually trapped we are, surprise is close at hand. Even when our life lacks the surprise of the extraordinary, the ordinary always wants to surprise us afresh. As a friend wrote to me from Minnesota on a winter morning: “I got up before dawn and caught God painting all the trees white. He’s been doing much of His best work while we sleep to surprise us when we get up.”

It is like the surprise we found in our rainbow. We can learn to let our sense of surprise be triggered not only by the extraordinary, but, above all, by a fresh look at the ordinary. “Nature is never spent,” says Gerard Manley Hopkins in praise of God’s grandeur. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down in things.” The surprise of the unexpected will wear off, but the surprise of that freshness never wears off. In rainbows it is obvious. Less obvious, the surprise of freshness is present in the most ordinary things. We can learn to see it as plainly as we see the powdery bloom on fresh blueberries, “a mist from the breath of a wind,” as Robert Frost calls it, “a tarnish that goes at the touch of a hand.”

We can train ourselves to see that bloom of surprise by spotting it first where it’s easiest for us to find. The child in us always remains alive, open for surprise, never ceasing to be amazed at something or other. It may be that I saw “this morning morning’s minion,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “dapple-dawn-drawn falcon in his riding,” or simply it may be this morning’s inch of toothpaste on my brush. Both are equally amazing to the eyes of the heart, for the greatest surprise is that there is anything at all—that we are here. We can cultivate our intellect’s taste for surprise. And whatever causes us to look with amazement opens “the eyes of our eyes.” We begin to see everything as a gift. An inch of surprise can lead to miles of gratefulness.

Surprise leads us on the path of gratefulness. This is true not only for our intellect, but also for our will. No matter how tenaciously our will clings to self-sufficiency, life provides the help we need to get out of that trap. Self-sufficiency is an illusion. And sooner or later, life shatters every illusion. None of us would be what we are if it were not for our parents, teachers, and friends. Even our enemies help make us what we are. There never was a self-made person. Every one of us needs others. Sooner or later life brings this truth home to us. By a sudden bereavement, by a long lingering sickness, or in some other way, life catches us by surprise. Catches us? Frees us by surprise, I should say. Painful it may be, but pain is a small price to pay for freedom from self-deception.

Self-sufficiency is self-deception on a still deeper level. Our true Self is not the little individual self over against other selves. We discover this in moments when, to our surprise, we experience deep communion with all other beings. These moments occur in everyone’s life. We may remember them as high-water marks of awareness, of aliveness of being at our best, and most truly try to suppress the memory of those ‘ourselves.’ Or we may suppress because that springtide of communion threatens the defensive isolation in which we feel snug. The walls behind which we hide may resist life’s battering for a long time. But, suddenly one day, the great surprise will break in on us, as in the following account from The Protean Body by Don Johnson.

…I walked out onto a dock in the Gulf of Mexico. I ceased to exist. I experienced being a part of the sea breeze, the movement of the water and the fish, the light rays cast by the sun, the colors of the palms and tropical flowers. I had no sense of past or future. It was not a particularly blissful experience: It was terrifying. It was the kind of ecstatic experience I’d invested a lot of energy in avoiding.

I did not experience myself as the same as the water, the wind, and the light, but as participating with them in the same system of movement. We were all dancing together.

photo by ZMM

photo by ZMM

In this great dance, giver and receiver are one. We suddenly realize how little it matters which of the two roles one happens to play at a given time. Beyond time, our true self rests in itself in perfect stillness. Within time, this is realized by a graceful give-and-take in the dance of life. As in a fast spinning top, the stillness and the dance are one. Only in that oneness is true self-sufficiency. Any other self- sufficiency is illusion. But the real is stronger in the end than any illusion. Sooner or later it will shine through like the sun through fog. Life, our teacher, will see to that.


Brother David Steindl-Rast is a Benedictine monastic, writer, and teacher, who was active in Buddhist-Christian dialogue in the 1960s and  received the 1975 Martin Buber Award for achievements in building bridges between religious traditions.

From Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer, Copyright © 1984 by David Steindl-Rast, reprinted with permission of Paulist Press.

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