In The Way of Gratitude: A New Spirituality for Today (Random House, June), Galen Guengerich, senior minister at New York City’s Unitarian Church of All Souls, sets out to create a modern template for spirituality based on gratitude. We spoke with Guengerich about his background as a conservative Mennonite and the new belief system he is looking to establish, which is centered on purpose, personal relationships, and a connectedness to all things.
What prompted you to write this book?
I began this journey because a young man asked me a question I should have been able to answer but couldn’t. He had moved from another part of the country and was in the young adult group at All Souls. He was trying to figure out how to live, reminding me that all spiritual traditions have certain practices. “What do we do?” he asked. I took him to mean we as people who don’t think ancient scriptures have all the answers but who also realize the meaning and purpose of life is more than getting ahead and going shopping. That’s the question I want to answer: what template do we use to live, if we don’t have an ancient scripture to guide us?
What does practicing gratitude look like?
Sometimes tragic things happen because of forces beyond our control. You can also go through life looking for what’s wrong, and there’s a sense we should, because there is a lot that is unjust and needs to be changed in the world. The question is, what are we going to do in response? My answer is, we need to look for what’s good and hopeful and possible in every situation we find ourselves in.
What role did your upbringing play in the formation of this new spiritual practice?
I grew up as a conservative Mennonite where I had been told what to do, and I did it. Coming out of that, I experienced a lot of freedom and had to think about making up my own mind. I needed to figure out how to live a life meaningful to me, with a clear sense of purpose and with a deep sense of joy.
How does God fit into your practice?
God is the experience of being connected to everything—all that is present, all that is past, and all that is possible. God is the presence of possibility in every moment of my life. No matter how good or bad things are, I have the gift of an opportunity to make certain choices that hopefully will make life better for me and everyone else.
What’s the most important thing you want readers to take from the book?
The key discovery for me was realizing that relationships are everything. In order for life to be good, relationships need to be good, in both directions: what we receive and what we give. Once you begin to make relationships central, you begin to see life is a matter of how you relate to everything else and how it relates to you. That’s when you get to an understanding of gratitude.