HEN I was 18, while playing soccer at the seminary, I injured one of my knees rather seriously. The injury required a week-long stay in a local hospital. While there, I shared a ward with three other patients, one of them a 50-something truck-driver who was suffering from an abdominal disorder. Whatever the specifics of his illness, it caused him a great deal of pain because he would often wake at night in pain and his groaning would wake the rest of us. Eventually always a nurse would come and give him a painkiller to help him go back to sleep.
One night, deep into the night, I was wakened by his groaning. Eventually he pushed his buzzer and the nurse came into the ward. She washed his face with a cool towel and then, through some kind of syringe, administered a pain-killer to him. After some minutes, the medication took effect and he relaxed considerably. Then, just as the nurse turned to leave the room, he said to her in a clear, firm voice: "I really appreciate you doing this for me." She replied simply: "No need for thanks. I'm only doing my job." But he answered: "Ma'am, it's nobody's job to take care of me! So when you do this for me I am really grateful."
It's nobody's job to take care of us and so we should be grateful when someone does. There's a lot of wisdom in that simple statement. Gratitude — both in terms of our recognition of our need for it and our expression of it — is ultimately the basis of all virtue. Granted, this is rather a strong and unconventional statement, but it is a true one.
SOren Kierkegaard once gave us an excellent definition of a saint. For him, to be a saint is "to will the one thing", namely, God and the life of service to which faith in God calls us. As excellent as that definition is, it needs a little qualification vis-à-vis our motivation for willing that one thing. To be a saint, one must also to be fuelled by gratitude. To be a saint is to recognise, as did that truck-driver with whom I once shared a hospital ward, that nobody owes us life, a living, service or love — and when we are given these we need to be grateful.
Gratitude, then, is the basis of all holiness. The holiest person you know is the most grateful person you know. That is true too for love, the most loving person you know is also the most grateful person you know because even love finds its basis in gratitude. Anything we might call love, but that is not rooted in gratitude, will at the end of the day be manipulative and selfserving. If our love and service of others does not begin in gratitude, we will end up carrying people's crosses and sending them the bill.
We are all familiar with TS Eliot's famous dictum that the last temptation that is the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Gratitude is the true reason for love and when we try to root our love in anything else (shared ideology, ethnicity, gender, sympathy, cause, religion, or anger) it will invariably be more selfserving than life-giving.
Real love roots itself in gratitude and gratitude roots itself in the recognition, expressed so well by the truck-driver I quoted, that nothing is owed to us "it's nobody's job to take care of me r Jesus tries to teach this to us in a miniparable which, on the surface, sounds rather awful but, underneath, carries a profound lesson: "Which of you, with a servant ploughing or minding the sheep, would say to him when he returned from the fields, `Come and have your meal inmediately'? Would he not be more litely to say, 'get my supper laid; make yourself tidy and wait on me while I eat and drink. You can eat and drink yourself afterwards'? Must he be grateful to the servant for doing what he was told? So with you: when you have done al you have been told to do, say, 'We arenerely servants, we have done no moe than our duty'." (Luke 17, 7-10) What Jesus is doing in this parable is drawing the distinction between what comes to us by right as opposed to what comes to us as gift. If each of It were given only what is owed to us, wewould live like that servant just describd. But we are given more, infinitely moe. The real task of life then is to recogniie this, to recognize that everything (lift love, others' service to us) is gift and at we need to keep saying thanks over ad over again for all the things in life that we so much take for granted... reco gtizing always that it is nobody's job o take care of us.