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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.
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.
This habit of recalling divine goodness and responding with grateful action can be a most reliable way of making decisions, fighting discouragement and resisting temptation. (And, as a blessed side-effect, the habit of gratitude can yield a more profound sorrow for past sin.) Whenever we are in a difficult situation, especially one that calls for a costly decision or a stubborn stand against habitual sin, we can ask ourselves, “How can I — here and now — prove to God that I am grateful?” Search for a specific act readily available, and then act accordingly. In other words, don’t say, “I will prove to God my gratitude by promising to go to Lourdes in 10 years.” Find an act of gratitude to be done here and now. And it need not be the stuff of high drama. Something simple will suffice. What’s essential is that the generous deed be done promptly with a living and grateful heart before moving on with the rest of the day and forgetting the graces already received.
With such a habit of gratitude well in place, we are less likely to be complainers (thereby making us more pleasant to be around), less prone to frustration, and less prone to self-pity and the self-indulgence that follows from self-pity. Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying: “Poor me. Poor me. Pour me another drink.” The habit of gratitude secures us against that dynamic.
Saint Ignatius Loyola said that ingratitude was the “the cause, beginning, and origin of all evils and sins.” Of course! Blind to our blessings and resentful over what we think we lack, we decide that we must provide for ourselves because God cannot be relied upon. This fallacy goes back to the Garden of Eden.
A little boy I know summed up this deceit as he learned it in Vacation Bible School: “Adam sinned. And Eve sinned. Because they listened to the snake. And they didn’t listen to God. And then, they got in BIG TROUBLE.” Yes, indeed. Satan is always telling us that God does not provide for us, and does not want the best for us. Satan always tells us that we are spiritual orphans abandoned into the world, and that we must fend for ourselves. Selfishness, despair and violence inevitably follow.
Generous gratitude secures us against the original lie of Satan. Generous gratitude is not a burden but a privilege, for it allows us to imitate God in goodness. Medieval Christians summed it up this way: “Do ut des.” (I give so that you might give.) In blessing us, God gives us the gift of being able to give a gift.
Some may fear that a review of daily blessings followed by daily actions in gratitude may be like itemizing income so as to ascertain taxes owed. Not at all!
When I was a little boy, my father kept a garden. The most beautiful flowers were the tiger lilies. One day he cut a tiger lily, handed it to me and instructed me to give it to my mother. I marched into the kitchen, as proud as if I had made the flower myself and announced, “Mommy! Look what I got for you!” My father had not only given me a flower to give to my mother — he gave me the gift of being able to give a gift. Just as God does every day.
This week, I’m going to Orlando to speak at the annual conference of the Catholic Medical Association. When I write next, I will share with you the graces received there. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.