In Creative Ministry, Henri Nouwen writes “The most subtle desire for power, and the most difficult to overcome, is the desire for thanks. As long as people keep thanking us for what we have done for them, they are, in effect, admitting that they were at least for some time dependent on us” (69*). Perhaps this is an odd passage to quote in this week of Thanksgiving celebrations, but I think it holds great insight.
Nouwen views ministry not only as a particular vocation within the church, but more fundamentally as an activity for all Christians. He depicts our desire for a “small kingdom of thankful people” who credit their well-being to us as a common stumbling block to Christian ministry (70). Nouwen does not deny the goodness of giving or receiving thanks, but rather acknowledges that our desire to be thanked may easily and insidiously become the motivation for our care for others. Therefore, he mitigates against the notion that ministry is “a heavy burden or a brave sacrifice” and describes it instead as the “opportunity to see more and more of the face of the One we want to meet” (75).
To me, this means that thanks is not primarily something to be looked for from those to whom Christians minister; rather it is first and foremost Christian ministers’ response to what they receive from others: a glimpse into the Spirit of Christ at work in another’s life. Further, through their response of thanksgiving Christians “minister” to others in truly life-giving ways:
A gift only becomes a gift when it is received; and nothing we have to give—wealth, talents, competence, or just beauty—will ever be recognized as a true gift until someone opens his or her hands or heart to accept them. This all suggests that if we want others to grow—that is to discover their potential and capacities, to experience that they have something to live and work for—we should first of all be able to recognize their gifts and be willing to receive them. For people only become fully human when they are received and accepted . . . . (33).
The life-giving gift of the minister is the reception and acceptance that allows others to be fully human; to give thanks for others is to help them to exist more fully. These statements strike me as deeply incarnational: it is through her joy-filled reception of the Holy Spirit that Mary ministers, allowing God to become fully human; it is through Christ’s reception of our humanity that he ministers to us, giving us abundant life.
On a practical level, to be truly grateful for other people in their particularity seems to me a daunting task. Some days I am more tempted to agree with Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband: “Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.” For Nouwen, though, even the portions of ourselves we perceive as most dark and unlovable must be received. Indeed, he believes that ministers who confront their own loneliness and illusions are best able to receive others as gift and to give life in return.
With Nouwen’s help, I see that the Christian life calls for a thankful recognition of our entire selves. Christ receives us wholly so that we may become holy, and Christians are to receive others in the same way. It seems to me that by receiving others with radical thanksgiving we acknowledge both the beauty and sin that mark the human condition, and this allows us to live in truly human ways with the God who shines through our existence in a mysterious mix of dark and light.
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
–Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty”
*Creative Ministry is reprinted in a collection of Nouwen’s works entitled Ministry and Spirituality from Continuum; page numbers correspond to that volume.