Before our wedding, our priest told us that if nothing else, we must work to keep gratitude at the center of our lives. Gratitude to each other, gratitude to God for our marriage, for our life, for the children that would come, for all of it. It is all a gift, and we are entitled to none of it.
My mother was always saying something similar. The trick to a great marriage, she’d say, is for each partner to be over-the-top generous with the other. Then, if one party was inclined to complain, they would immediately feel like an ungrateful crumb, be ashamed, and forgive the offending party. Even if the complaint was just, it would be completely eclipsed by the generosity of the other. How could she complain about his dirty socks on the floor, if he had been up all night with feverish kids last week?
There’s a phrase in the Mass that’s been jumping out at me every Sunday, which brought gratitude back into my mind, just as I was starting to forget it. It’s where the priest says “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks.” It’s striking because it’s so simple. I knew that it was my duty to give thanks. That is just good manners — even toddlers know to say “thank you” when they get a present. But it’s surprising to think of gratitude as “our salvation,” on top of all that.
That’s our salvation? We just need to be grateful? Well good grief, even I can do that!
That’s what was on my mind the other day, when my husband, my son and I got into a moderately serious car accident. I opened my eyes to see the spiderweb pattern of cracked glass on the windshield. There was a strong smell of smoke and burnt plastic, and my ears were ringing. We scrambled out of the car to pull my son’s car-seat out of the back. I didn’t know what I was going to find.
Well, he was startled, but nobody was hurt. Five minutes after I got him into a nearby restaurant, out of the cold, he was running around making friends with the waitresses. And I was sitting at a booth, shaking, and thinking that never again would I take for granted his health and mine, our safety and my family.
I even started thinking, once the shock had worn off, that gratitude was going to be a cinch after this incident. It was going to be easier than ever to remember how fragile our lives are, and how everything we have is a gift. God can give or take away anything, at any time, and my job, to “always and everywhere, give thanks,” was going to be easy.
But the funny thing is, gratitude hasn’t been any easier. My brain immediately reverted to assuming that I can count on everything I have. I found myself thinking, back and neck still sore from the impact, that after all, accidents don’t happen that often, and I don’t have to worry. You’d think I’d have at least gone to confession, but it wasn’t even six hours before I was back to taking for granted every good thing in my life. By the time a day had passed, I had completely lost that useful, helpful sense of the fragility of life. Now I have a totaled car, and not an inch of spiritual growth to show for it, if you can imagine.
I guess this is why it’s really “our salvation” to give thanks to God. Gratitude is hard work. It takes real effort and vigilance to remember that all the stability and peace that we might have is more transient than the grass of the field. Gratitude saves us in the sense that it forces us to constantly acknowledge our total dependence on God. Being aware of that dependence cuts the head off of pride, greed, anger, envy, and every sin that is formed by a sense of entitlement. We aren’t owed anything. Everything is a gift. If we can keep that in mind, we’ll be more equipped to remember that whatever might be going wrong in our life, it is still our duty and our salvation “always and everywhere to give thanks.” Gratitude is necessary in a marriage, and a hundred times more necessary in our relationship with God.
More to read: Diverted Bullets and a Child Saved