As we mentioned in our previous post, our virtue focus for the quarter is Faith. As is the case with other virtues, Faith has some “prerequisites”—certain things that are required as a condition for faith to grow. Perhaps chief among them is a sense of gratitude. A heart that is full of thanks rises to the One to whom that thanks is due and overflows with generosity toward others. It can be hard work to have full hearts. Pride is often identified as the first sin of the Fall, but ingratitude did not play a minor role. Adam and Eve were given all of the trees of the garden but one, and yet…. You know the rest of the story: discontent became part of our fallen human nature.
In C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, an unnamed Narrator finds himself in Grey Town where he boards a bus. That bus takes the travelers to the foothills of Heaven. Grey Town, it turns out, is either Hell or Purgatory, depending on whether one chooses to remain there or not. On his journey, the Narrator meets George MacDonald,* sent from Heaven to greet him, and their conversation is “interrupted by the thin voice of a Ghost talking at an enormous speed…” If you’ve read the book or seen the play, you know what follows is a veritable flood of complaints, a self-absorbed “shrill monotonous whine.”
MacDonald notices the Narrator’s distress: “What troubles ye, son?” asked my Teacher. “I am troubled, Sir,” said I, “because that unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn’t wicked: she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and one feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would put her all right.”
The woman might be cured, explains MacDonald, if she is a grumbler; but it may be too late, for she may have turned into “a grumble”, without any trace of a woman still inside. “But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?” the Narrator asks. MacDonald then gives a brief explanation from moral psychology: “…it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”
A woman who becomes merely “a grumble”? What are we to make of such a bizarre picture? And isn’t Lewis, through the voice of MacDonald, being more than a little harsh when he says essentially that Heaven may give up on her, that she may become “nothing but ashes…to be swept up.” Taking the second question first—Lewis, influenced by Dante’s Divine Comedy, uses an exploration of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven in part to wake us up to the seriousness of our choices. “There is no neutral ground in the universe,” says Lewis, “Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.” If that is true, how much more attention should we pay to our words, all of them? But what more can we learn from the strange picture of a Grumble? We’ll reflect briefly on what grumbling does to us and to others, and we’ll do this in part by imagining the opposite of a Grumble—a Gratitude.
Grumbling shrinks one’s world. It makes a person unable to see or enjoy good things. It can sometimes take a lot of work to find the good in something or someone, but grumbling certainly gets in the way of those efforts. Grumbling often fails to treat others with respect and charity; more often than not, it assumes ignorance and ill-will. Frequently it takes the easier path of gossip rather than the challenging path of face-to-face conversation. And, it’s contagious. There is a strange allure to the comradery felt in complaining together. As Lewis points out, and we all know, grumbling can become a habit.
By contrast, gratitude expands one’s world. G.K. Chesterton defined gratitude as “happiness doubled by wonder”. Wonder increases a person’s capacity to see the good. Gratitude treats others with respect and charity; it takes a posture of humility and assumes good-will on the part of another. In the words of St. Francis, it seeks not so much “to be understood as to understand.” It too is contagious. Gratitude, wonder, and humility build us and others up. Gratitude also can become a habit, albeit a better one than grumbling.
A Grumble is often quick to speak, even about things he or she knows very little. (The population of Grumbles on social media and in personal conversation is disturbingly high. Watch out for them. Don’t be one.) A Gratitude is patient, seeking to understand before speaking. In our recent Dante discussion group, we learned a bit about the medieval Scholastic approach to learning. Since the idea of memory was essential to the idea of the human person, and since books were not readily available, an encounter with a body of knowledge was approached with humility and eagerness to understand and absorb and synthesize it with other knowledge.
Opinion, criticism, and/or progress came only after the long patient task of gratefully receiving and trying to comprehend what was offered. Hence the medieval proverb, later expressed by Isaac Newton, that whatever knowledge we gain comes from “standing on the shoulders of giants.” A classical Christian education helps your students to climb higher in order to stand in wonder at God and his good creation, in humility and thankfulness for all that they have been given, and with charity toward others. In offering such an education, our hope is to graduate not Grumbles, but Gratitudes—persons who overflow with thanks to their creator and generosity toward others.
*MacDonald had a tremendous impact on C.S. Lewis, so much so that Lewis said of his writings that they “baptized my imagination.” (The rest of him, Lewis said, “took a little longer.”)