We can write about values or sit in silence with our Creator, evangelize on social media and retreat to pray for the world. But it is during the daily encounter with others that we exercise morality. In “Hospitality to the Stranger,” theologian Thomas W. Ogletree writes,
The material meaning of the moral imperative emerges from the self’s participation in the lives of other selves . . . It is the self’s participation in the center of the other self and consequently an acceptance of that self and his or her particularities regardless of whether a convergence of personal characteristics is present. This, Tillich suggests, is the core meaning of agape love.
Agape love is the love of God for humankind and of humankind for God. We love when we participate in another person’s life. We love when we participate in that life regardless of a person’s particularities: the one who talks too much, the in-law who votes for the other party, that guy on that committee who challenges every decision. Flesh and blood human interaction is when our high ideals and lofty spirituality are tested. This is where a juridical, straining-of-gnats religiosity fails, and where genuine goodness and kindness are the manifestation of mercy.
We are called to acknowledge that goodness in others. The Apostle Paul wrote in Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thes. 5:16 – 18)
Prayers of thanksgiving are requisite to the spiritual life. I profer that acknowledging the kindness of others is also a worthy spiritual practice.
As I’ve written before, I consider myself a grateful person, despite being plagued by a reliably intermittent black crush of depression. In the spirit of gratitude, I’m a fan of acknowledging others as often as possible via a thank you note. Creating a practice of writing thank you notes keeps me in a state of gratitude, attuned to kindness. Writing this post, all the thank you notes I need to write come to mind, for recent and not so recent thoughtfulness.
A new acquaintance gave me her comped Yo-Yo Ma tickets in December, brought by a jar of homemade Bourbon caramel sauce at Christmas and sent a sympathy card when my brother died in January. We haven’t known each other long or broken bread at one another’s kitchen tables (for me a sign that true friendship is cementing), yet she has showered me with kindness.
I play tennis with a married couple, mere acquaintances, a wife with a New England bob smooth and white as fondant and an array of tennis skirts bright as hard candy, and her gruff, dry-humored husband. They check in with me via email and when they see me in person because they are privy to a particular struggle of mine. Other people know the struggle and either out of politeness or absent mindedness don’t ask. This couple, they ask.
A friend drove over an hour to visit, and she came bearing cheese. Heavy blocks of cheese tumbled from a bag like gold bars, a robber’s bounty. There were crackers, too, and a jar of cornichons, but really, the cheese, more types of cheese, than had ever been in my house at one time. I need to thank her. And of course, not just for the cheese.
One needn’t follow a formula for writing a thank you note, but there is one:
1. Greet the giver.
2. Express gratitude. (Be specific—mention how you’ll use the gift or express particular appreciation for a kind word or gesture.)
3. Refer to the past. (This affirms the relationship.)
4. Allude to the future. (A signal you’d like to continue the friendship.)
5. Sign off.
Weeks ago, I awoke at 4 a.m. worrying about the wording of a thank you note I’d sent, a note to an important person regarding a consequential situation, and it occurred to me I had skipped Step 4. See, I had run out of room on the card. But it was a formal note to a formal person—a straight-out-of-Hollywood-casting-handsome-WASPy man who—well, discretion. But he’s a person who would know which step I skipped. I am not suggesting, dear reader, you worry about such things. This is a cautionary tale. Skip the ruminating. Just write the damn note.
Of course, it’s best to write promptly, but as long as the recipient is still alive, a thank you note is never too late. To that end, this Lent, I am aiming to write a thank you note a day. (Princess Diana did it, every night.) I encourage you to write thank you notes in all circumstances.
Here’s that cheese note, all steps included.
I wanted to thank you for your visit last weekend, and for the abundance of cheese and the opioid contentment it induced. Never has a hostess gift been more appreciated, especially by the beagle, who had her way with the wedge of stinky blue cheese. Thank you also for graciously handling that imbroglio.
Who knew your radiant smile that cheered me in college would welcome me so warmly into a new life in upstate NY 25 years later.
I hope we’ll be eating more cheese together soon.
Blessed Ash Wednesday. Happy Writing.