I have just spent the last six months in a specialist neuropsychiatric unit in a South London hospital. The team have been trying to help me manage better the symptoms of the chronic illness which has dictated my life for the last thirty years. The unit was noisy and intense, full of slamming doors and panic alarms which did nothing to ease my migraines or seizures. It was full of needy people, some with an FND (Functional Neurological Disorder) like me, others with brain injuries following severe trauma. The adjustment from living quietly on my own, rarely leaving the house, was huge. It was so difficult to pray in that place. I felt alone, isolated and alienated from the ‘real’ world, subject to the ‘unnatural’ whims of a ward regime, unable to make many of my own choices about my time, about my food, about my company.
And yet, regardless of whether I could pray, there were countless times I was reminded that others were praying for me and holding me during this season: time and again God’s loving presence was manifested through someone else just when I needed it. A card, a letter, a cup of tea, a kind word; they were all vehicles of God’s mercy to me when I was struggling to see the wood for the trees.
When I felt the blanket of depression descending once again in response to changes in medication and psychological treatments, I had to find a way of strengthening my gratitude practice; I knew I had to be prepared to dig even deeper to mine each day for gold in the face of the descending darkness. I had to find a small, manageable way to make a visible, tangible record of God-with-me because, spiritual toddler that I am, I am prone to forget.
For years I have been using what I call ‘Grace Notes’ to catalogue my gratitude to God. These have consisted of more or less scribbled lists in a journal that might itemise that day’s visitors to the bird feeders, or the way the light spilt across the living room carpet.
In September 2013 I wrote a post on my shot at ten paces blog which tried to sum up my reliance on Grace Notes:
These are no more than a list of jotted words and phrases of things and thoughts, conversations, occurrences, sights and sounds etc that are not just ‘good’ in and of themselves but for which I am profoundly grateful. Grateful for the fact that these things, thoughts, conversations, occurrences, sights, sounds etc have been given – to me, at that precise moment, out of the whole universe of all that is – and that they feel like moments of deep beneficence just for me from my God who is Love. Each one is an ‘everyday epiphany’ to use John Milton’s beautiful phrase.
In turn, my ‘Grace Notes’ serve as a very useful reminder of how and who I have been that week, or month or year – and so form the basis for the next cycle of thanksgiving.
The ‘notes’ are literal in this sense but also that they often speak of only partial fragments at the heart of what has been given to me that day, of what really resonated within me. If I can begin to glimpse those essences, hear those reverberations, and embrace the uniqueness of each gift that day, then I can begin to Glory in the Gratitude.
Now in 2019 when I feel I can’t pray in any conventional sense, when I feel I can’t even believe, making a ‘Grace Note’ still helps root me back into the conviction I have held since I was first ill thirty years ago: God is in my details. There is no minutiae in my life that is beyond God’s loving gaze. ‘Grace Notes’ are the tangible evidence of Presence when sometimes all I can feel is absence.
During the early days of my hospital admission I was following a free online art course called ‘sketchbook revival’ (30 days of continual practice with different artists and mentors – I can recommend it for next year!), I came across an artist called Jennie Moraitis who has developed the habit of using small doodles in small notebooks to make what she calls ‘happy journals’. Words were in short supply at that time, (I normally write several journal pages daily) and I could not describe how I felt since I was so overwhelmed by the hospital environment and the demands of the treatment, so the prompt to add doodles to my ‘Grace Notes’ was a timely one (and because they weren’t supposed to be works of art, my perfectionist self could do them relatively uncritically which was also a huge source of peace to my busy brain!).
Even though I try to pray ‘thank You for this day’ each night as I switch out the light to sleep, the habit of gratitude is still not firmly engrained in me. And yet, I remain convinced that it is highly possible that gratitude, the practice of thanksgiving, moment by moment, is the most important building block for a life of mature faith. My soul soars to recognise everything is Gift. The generosity of the Giver continues to astound me. Grace is showered upon me, leading me further and further in to discover the infinite wonders of the Maker’s Universe in the view from my sickroom window.
If my eyes will see and my ears will hear, this is all evidence God is with me, in this too; present here, now.
And when I do see and hear, I can whisper ‘Hallelujah’. ‘Thank You’.