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How Gratitude Can Transform Your Life

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Let Your Reasons to be Grateful Prompt Simple Acts of Kindness

So far we’ve talked about spiritual blindness, spiritual sight and spiritual hearing. This week, I’d like to talk about gratitude — the natural and graced response of those whose spiritual eyes and ears are open.

Gratitude is so important that we’ve worked very hard to make it easy to get it wrong. Let me explain. Remember when you were three years old and your parents brought you to see Aunt Mildred? Dear old Aunt Mildred brought out a tray of cookies. You became feral and charged for the tray. As you were stuffing cookies in your mouth, what words came out of your parents’ mouth? “WHAT DO YOU SAY?” With crumbs falling on the floor, you mumbled mechanically, “Thank you.” Your parents hoped that after you were reminded 30,000 times, you would finally say “thank you” automatically. And that’s the problem.

When I was a Jesuit novice, I worked at a school for children with special needs. One 14-year old boy needed help preparing to receive Holy Communion for the first time. Every day at lunch, we would practice with an unconsecrated host, repeating over and over: “Body of Chirst.” “Amen!” “Body of Christ.” “Amen!” One time he missed his cue and I prompted him: “What do you say?” His reflexive reply: “Thank you.”

Isn’t that like us? Our so-called gratitude is so automatic that we don’t even think about what we’re saying, much less what we’re feeling, or why we are saying it — it’s just a stimulus response, a reflex.

Gratitude is of course more than just saying the right words. It’s also more than grateful feelings that we might try to force ourselves to feel on command. (Think of it. How ridiculous is it to say, “I’m going to start feeling grateful on 3-2-1-NOW!”) If we want to know what real gratitude is like, let’s start with Luke 17:11-19, where we find the account of Jesus cleansing the ten lepers. The grateful Samaritan healed by Jesus expressed his gratitude by his actions. That’s the key.

We’ve all made grandiose resolutions to do this or that good thing. The more grandiose the resolutions, the less likely they are not to last. (One wit observed, “Nothing inspires such false hopes as the first six hours of a diet.”) Acting on gratitude for blessings and mercies received is the best course of action, because when other resolutions are forgotten or grateful feelings fade, there is always a reason to be grateful.

At the end of his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius Loyola observes that love is shown more in deeds than in words. He urges us to ask God “for interior knowledge of so great good received, in order that being entirely grateful, I may be able in all to love and serve His Divine Majesty.” In particular, he asks us to consider all our blessings given by God through nature and grace.
 

"And with this to reflect on myself, considering with much reason and justice, what I ought on my side to offer and give to His Divine Majesty, that is to say, everything that is mine, and myself with it, as one who makes an offering with much feeling: ‘Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my intellect, and all my will — all that I have and possess. Thou gavest it to me: to Thee, Lord, I return it! All is Thine, dispose of it according to all Thy will. Give me Thy love and grace, for this is enough for me’.”

In other words, as we marvel at how we are blessed, we gladly (and in justice) make a return to the Lord by offering ourselves in service. How much greater this is than a merely mechanical, “Thank you”! How much more real and effective than contriving grateful feelings!

Cultivating a habit of gratitude is the most reliable way to extricate ourselves from every pattern of sin and disorder in our lives. We can begin by securing five minutes in our lives every day, during which time we count the blessings and mercies we have received in the past 24 hours. If we do that faithfully, we will soon find the constant generosity of God to be amazing, even overwhelming. At the end of the five minutes, ask God to reveal to you one person for whom you should perform an act of kindness that day as a concrete expression of your gratitude. Then act accordingly.

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