By Ricardo J. Márquez
How do we feel when someone thanks us? What do we see in the faces and eyes of people whom we thank?
I have experienced moments in my life when I have been on the receiving end of gratitude. I recall one such time at the end of a three-day spiritual retreat at a federal prison in Ohio when we formed a farewell circle. The spiritual visitors, as we were called, were in the inner circle facing the inmates, who were in the outer one.
Those of us on the inner circle would turn slowly, and for a few moments we were able to look into the eyes of person in the outer one. Then we would move on to the next person, all accompanied by music that helped to create a sacred space for encounter and departure from the three days we had shared.
If the eyes “are the mirror of the soul” because they immediately reflect all of our joys, fears and most secret emotions, I had the opportunity to experience a variety of feelings and emotions that brought me and some of those whom I gazed at, to tears.
My gaze was not an occasional one; it was intentional. Before this experience, I told myself, and prayed for grace, that my gaze would express the love of the Creator, of God, for each of the persons that I was going to look at.
This is what occurred: In each exchange, I felt my eyes emanating an embrace of light, respect, and an appreciation of the dignity of the person. It was like entering a state of higher consciousness that allowed me to see the other like the Creator would see him, like the first gazes my sons gave me when they were born — clean, clear, without judgment or prejudice.
When we finished this exercise, one of the inmates approached me with tears in his eyes. He was big and muscular. Once again looking at me, he told me: “I wanted to thank you. It has been a long time since anyone has looked into my eyes like you did today.”
We embraced spontaneously. I will never forget what I felt at that moment. The emotional side of my brain stored that feeling in the neural connections that maintain powerful memories, where time does not pass and you can always relive the moment, where it’s never forgotten, like ordinary experiences that fade.
That gesture of gratitude made me take stock of the gifts I had received, of the gift that I can be in the life of others; it expanded the margins of my heart, made me magnanimous.
Receiving gratitude also implies humility; sometimes, it’s hard for us to accept thanks because we believe that it can feed the ego and stoke conceit and arrogance.
To receive gratitude with grace and kindness implies an awareness that “I” am not the cause of it, rather the instrument, a channel to a loving reality that transforms and nourishes me. Utilizing the metaphor of electricity, if we allow the surge of gratitude to flow directly from the source without proper grounding, we can electrocute ourselves in vanity.
Gratitude surges from the heart; that’s why it’s sensitive and vulnerable. Physiologically speaking, gratitude is an energy that expands, opening the skin’s pores to receive, which is contrary to the effect an insult produces. Gratitude connects us, creates community and strengthens ties. Gratitude prepares us to receive and to keep giving.
Thank you for taking the time to read these words. I hope what they inspire grows within you.
As the German philosopher told us, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.”
Ricardo J. Márquez, PhD, is associate director of the Diocese of San Diego’s Office for Family Life and Spirituality.