Day 10 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.
Every time I walk back from work to the cottage, and I see it perched on it’s little hill, I am incredibly thankful. Thank-full. To the brim and overflowing. I had never really believed that I would own a house, nor one that fit so perfectly my internal image of the Contemplative Cottage. Even photos of lovely English cottages in Oxford, or thatched-roofed cottages in Ireland, do not make me wish for those other houses in those wonderful, but distant, places. They only give me ideas for decorating my house, here, rooted in a community I love.
In 2008, when I was first contemplating starting a blog, I discovered the blog of Ann Voscamp, author of the New York Times bestseller One Thousand Gifts, a Christian, Canadian farmer, and mother of 7. Ann introduced me to a practice that has woven itself into my life now for 8 years: counting gratitudes.
Challenged by a friend to count to 1ooo things she was thankful for, Ann began a list. Every Monday on her blog, she would share her list from the previous week. For her, this practice radically transformed her life, one that had been marked by depression, debilitating fear, and grief over the tragic death of her younger sister. While all that she wrestled with did not suddenly disappear, she found that keeping a running record of her thanks built a habit of thanksgiving, eucharisteo, and changed how she saw her life and the world. She began to see more and more to add to her list.
Inspired by her practice and testimony, I began a list. After a few months, aware that keeping up the practice in times of stress would be difficult, I created a gratitude journal, as she suggested, one that could be open on the counter in plain sight. A memory for which I’m thankful is making the journal while on a Christmas visit to my parents’, taking over the dining room table with crafting supplies. This past year, on December 31, 2015, I entered the 1330th gratitude on the final page. My new journal began at the start of 2016 and I continue counting.
The power of the practice, even doing it semi-regularly as I do, shifts my attention from all that is wrong or negative, to all the beauty and love that surround me. It helps me pay attention (the primary practice for so many spiritual disciplines!) to the little graces and gifts that the frenetic pace of life often blinds me to.
But there is another, even more powerful outcome, one that the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas discusses when talking about virtue. We can be trained in the virtue of moderation by the experience of delight by learning (hopefully) the moment that delighting in something turns into self-indulgence. Delight reinforces our habits, but it does more. Remembered delight–delighting in the memory of the delight–is joy. When I reread the years and years of gratitudes, small and large, I’m not simply delighted, I experience a deep joy, that leads to an even deeper thanks.
If this practice resonates with you, the easiest way to begin is to write a list 10 things you are thankful for…get detailed, get specific.
It can be something very small, like how the sun light reflects beautifully on a wall, or the smell of baking bread, or the buzzing bees in the garden. It can be thanks for the life of loved one, a specific list of how you are thankful for them. It can be the hindsight gratitude for redemption of a hard or painful experience.
Once you’ve counted ten, make that list the beginning of a longer list. Put it in a visible place–on a kitchen counter or nightstand– and add to it from time to time, until you have counted to 1000. And once there, why stop?