Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Gratitude And The Man On The Train

By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published November 22, 2012

In Walker Percy’s “The Message in the Bottle,” there is an essay entitled “The Man on the Train.” The man is a long time commuter, riding the same train every morning, to the same job he has had for years. The routine has deeply settled him into the realm of ordinariness. He is a man of habit, going through the same routines every day, year after year. His life has become one of predictability.

He has succumbed to the narcotizing effects of an orderly, controlled and rather boring life.

On one such ride, he suffers a near fatal heart attack. His routine is ruptured. He loses control—yet his senses, his awareness, become quickened by the chaos around him. The train has stopped, medics are coming toward him, everything is alarming but revelatory. He raises his hand before his eyes and notices it as if for the first time. He stares in wonder at it, at the marvel that he can move his fingers, and that he even has fingers, that he is alive and can yet grasp a hand, find comfort in human touch, human care.

Out of the crisis it is as if he has been born again and is seeing everything about him and within him as if for the first time. The rupture that has cracked the ordinariness of his life brought with it the fresh air of something wondrous—a sense of deep gratitude.

There is the Gospel story about the cleansing of the ten lepers. After being healed, they go on their way. Only one comes back to praise God and to thank Jesus.

I do not know why the nine healed lepers did not come back to express gratitude. But let us say for argument’s sake that they walked back into the hectic cares and worries of life. They were cleansed, but they had lives to live, lives to get on with, people to see, work to do—no trains to ride, but maybe camels to bear them into the swells and routines of life.

The one leper who did return was a thoughtful man. But so were the others. You cannot really say that they were brainless. Thoughtless might be a better word. But the man who returned had a memory that served him well. His priorities were lined up correctly, in the right order. He lived well, and saw well, and spoke from it. He thought back, was grateful, and returned to Jesus.

We celebrate Thanksgiving once a year. For many of us, it can be a stress-filled, busy time. And it is only the beginning. The following weeks will snowball into the Christmas season.

In the midst of it all, I hope we are able to stop the clock, the ovens, the shopping and the gift wrapping to return to and find our quiet selves, and simply express thanks to God. We do not need a crisis in order to disengage ourselves from the wheels of life. A quiet space will do.

It is never to late to express gratitude. It is a good habit to develop. It breaks the taken-for-granted veneer of day-to-day living and reveals everything as a gift—our lives, our friends, our weaknesses, our need for someone who made us. Someone whom we can easily forget when we lose ourselves riding through life, seemingly secure in our habits, our routines. Never seeming to wonder, as in the song by Peggy Lee, if that is all there is.