On Gratitude, Modern Utopianism, and the Cross of Christ
The Holy Fathers teach us that in order to conquer any given passion, we must strive to cultivate the opposing virtue. If we are greedy, we must cultivate generosity. If we are angry, we must cultivate gentleness. If we are proud, we must cultivate humility. If we are lazy, we must cultivate zeal for working the works of God.
But I have often thought that there is one virtue which encompasses all the other virtues, and which therefore constitutes repentance for every sin, the antidote to every vice, and the utter destruction of every passion. That virtue is gratitude.
For if we are grateful, how can we possibly be at the same time angry, suspicious, resentful, envious, greedy, or proud? If we are continuously grateful to Almighty God, how can we possibly be at the same time forgetful of Him, or coldhearted toward our neighbor? If we are grateful at all times and for all things to our All-Merciful Savior, how can we possibly be distracted by anything — whether good or bad, important or insignificant — from our divinely-appointed mission, the only meaning and purpose of our life on earth: pursuing the path toward theosis, toward union with Him who “filleth all in all”? For indeed all things and every single event which transpires in our life — whether good or bad, important or insignificant — have been either sent or allowed by the Divine Providence of God, precisely in order to lead us to deification and the salvation of our souls.
This is our faith, the faith of our fathers. It was perhaps for such a reason that St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco declared Thanksgiving to be one of the only secular American holidays that Orthodox Christians ought to observe (the other being Mother’s Day). And we American Orthodox Christians who keep the Old Calendar have been given a special gift by the Church to remind us of the full depth and meaning of gratitude: every year, the feast of St. John Chrysostom falls exceptionally close to Thanksgiving Day. And of all the words ever uttered by the Golden-Mouth, perhaps the most famous is the phrase: “Glory to God for all things.”
These words of profound Christian gratitude were spoken by a man sick and dying, persecuted and exiled, reviled and mistreated, spat out and trampled upon by an ungrateful and uncomprehending world. Yet for all those things — and precisely for those things — he gave most heartfelt thanks, in imitation of His Lord and of all the holy martyrs, whose most cherished hope and whose crowning joy was to receive absolutely unjust and undeserved torment, mockery, derision, and death.
For many it is a custom on Thanksgiving Day to share with their close ones the things for which they are most grateful. And indeed, this is fitting and proper. But how many of us give “glory to God for all things”? How many of us — even of us Orthodox Christians — choose on this day to give thanks to God for all of the sicknesses and sorrows and misfortunes of our lives, trusting with firm faith that Divine Providence has arranged even and especially such trials and tribulations, in order to bring us to eternal salvation and joy beyond all compare? How many of us imitate the Prophet Job, saying “What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” And how many of us remember that the evils of this life are given to us as signposts, pointing us beyond this fallen and fading world toward our homeland which is in Heaven, toward the Jerusalem which is on high? How many of us recognize that even the blessings of this life are mere foretastes of the joy laid up for us in the Kingdom of God? How many of us remember the saying of our Lord: “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”? All too often our treasures are entirely those of this earth, and our hearts are held fast by the trinkets of this world. And all too often when we are deprived of such treasures, gratitude is absolutely the furthest thing from our hearts.
Why are these things so, even for many of us Christians? Why can we perceive the love of God so dimly in His blessings, and in His chastisements not at all? The answer, in large part, is that we have been seduced by narrative of modernity.
Perhaps the defining feature of modernity is its utopianism: the conviction that this world can be made into paradise, indeed that it must be made into paradise, because there is no other world and there will be no future paradise (though the gullible may still be permitted to believe privately in such “fantasies,” so long as those “fantasies” in no way impede the March of Progress). The construction of such an earthly paradise is even taken by many to be the true aim of Christianity, thus — in Voegelin’s words — “immanentizing the eschaton.” And indeed, the utopianism of modernity is quite simply a Christianity without any Christ, the pursuit of Heaven without any God.
But ironically, the “Problem of Evil” which has so often plagued Christians returns in even greater force to plague the utopianism of Antichristianity. As long as there is evil in this world, it is a sign that there is something wrong with the prevailing order, a sign that we have been deprived of our rights, a sign that there remains some injustice which must yet be rooted out. And in such a worldview, how could gratitude for suffering be considered anything other than the chief of all sins? Such gratitude is literally sacrilege, an unholy desecration of the dream of a perfect and perfectly just world.
When George Washington gave our nation’s first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789, he prayed God to “promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue… and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.” But any politician who uttered any such words today would be laughed out of office. For today prayer and “true religion” have no place in public life, and modern man needs no God to determine what “degree of temporal prosperity” is best. Even if some Christians might be foolish enough to pray, why would they pray for any degree of prosperity short of the highest? What could possibly be the point of praying for anything less than paradise on earth?
There is indeed some resemblance between the modern worldview and true Christianity, for otherwise such a worldview could have no hold on the hearts of those created in the image and likeness of God. Yes, Christianity is a religion of love, and of mercy, and of the unity of all mankind. Yes, Christianity is even a religion which promises nothing short of the paradise for which our hearts all truly yearn.
But it is also the religion of the Cross.
And it is precisely the Cross that has been eradicated from modernity, and from the modern Christianity which has been swept away by it. And for us modern children who would be faithful to Christ and His Church in the midst of those seeking to once again build Babel, there is one bulwark, one firm foundation, one divine weapon of truth which has the power to withstand and demolish all the lies of the modern world: gratitude for the Cross.
Gratitude first and foremost for Christ and His Cross, which delivered us from bondage to the prince of this world. But gratitude also for our own crosses, the crosses which we ourselves have been commanded to take up, and thus to follow after our Savior in death as well as in resurrection. Gratitude for the crosses that put to death the old man, for the crosses that point us beyond this broken world, for the crosses that — more than anything else — allow us to witness to those around us that there is so much more to life than the fleeting joys and dim echoes of happiness which are all that this fallen world can offer.
Tertullian famously remarked that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” But I think that it was not simply the act of martyrdom itself which shook the pagan world to its core and finally brought about its conversion, but above all the profound gratitude and joy shown forth by those great Christian men and women as they were brutally persecuted, shamed, tortured, and put to death.
Truly, “the Cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.”
Let us remember these things on this Thanksgiving Day. Let us indeed give thanks for the innumerable blessings which our loving Father has abundantly bestowed upon us, but let us by no means neglect to give thanks also for all of our sorrow, pain, illness, mistreatment, loneliness, and loss. For as one modern writer put it: “what punishments of God are not gifts?” Such sufferings are nothing other than the means of our salvation, the tools of our sanctification, the crosses which alone have the power to bring us to eternal life, and to everlasting union with the One Who came “to give His life a ransom for many.” Let us walk the very path shown to us by our Savior and our Great High Priest. And above all, let us do so joyfully and with overwhelming gratitude, for truly, “through the Cross joy has come to all the world.”
Gratitude is indeed the cure for every sin and every passion, and for all the many poisons of this modern age.
Glory to God for all things.
Many spirits are abroad in the world, and the credentials they display are splendid gifts of mind, learning, and of talent. Christian, look carefully. Ask for the print of the nails.
St. Justin the Philosopher