Gratitude, as a discipline, takes desire, commitment and a plan. Here's how.
We’ve all seen too many “How to make this year the best year ever! 25 ways to lose weight, get rich and be as happy as you wanna be!” articles after each New Year’s Day. Let’s avoid any attempt at offering theological cover to the idolatrous cult of self-esteem: “God wants you to be the best YOU ever! Here’s how—Order today!”
Let’s talk about the discipline of gratitude. Gratitude is more often spoken of as a virtue, but it’s tempting to move from “the virtue of gratitude” to “the ideal of gratitude” to “gratitude: wouldn’t that be nice to have?” To call it the discipline of gratitude is to present it as an obligation and a consistent choice.
Example: Kids rush to Aunt Mildred, who brings out a tray of cookies. Parents intervene: “What do you say?” Children chime: “Thank-you-Aunt-Mildred” and then greedily devour the cookies. That’s not the discipline of gratitude. Such a discipline is a firm and practical commitment to be a good steward of gifts received, respecting the intention and generosity of the gift-giver. Real gratitude is both a matter of duty and of honor.
Saint Paul insists we live a life worthy of our Christian calling. (Ephesians 4:1) In other words, “Live gratefully—embrace the discipline of gratitude.” Such a life doesn’t happen by accident. We have to have a plan.
Gratitude may be lived tactically, daily and strategically. Tactically, exercise the discipline of gratitude whenever tempted or discouraged. Ask: “How can I here and now prove to God that I am grateful for my blessings?” There’s always a good answer to that question—and there’s always a reason to be grateful.
Daily, exercise the discipline of gratitude by memory and recollection. Just take five minutes to count the blessings and mercies received in the past 24 hours. Let yourself be astounded by God’s generosity and fidelity. Practiced faithfully, the daily discipline of gratitude makes tactical gratitude that much easier.
Strategically, we exercise the discipline of gratitude by planning out our worthy reception and stewardship of God’s gifts. For example, grateful for the gift of my mind, I’ll list the books I’ll read and the skills I’ll acquire over the coming year. Grateful for the gift of my health, I’ll list what can be corrected and strengthened in the care of my body. Grateful for the gift of my faith, I will list my commitments for prayer, study, devotion, penance and intercession. (Heilman’s “Field Manual for the Church Militant” is a fine guide.)
The first step towards the discipline of gratitude is to acknowledge our blessings and to savor them. Acknowledgement is a work of the intellect; savoring is a work of the heart. We need both! When I was applying to the join the Society of Jesus, I had to write a brief autobiography. To prepare, I had to pray through my personal history, noting God’s presence and goodness throughout. I decided to stretch out on a couch, close my eyes, and “re-live” my life. I thought it couldn’t take long, as I was only 28 and wouldn’t have that much to remember. Six hours later, I was convinced that I was the most blessed man who ever lived.
Before 2017 gets too far along, make a similar exercise. Whether in one sitting or several, review your life and let God reveal himself there. Expect to be amazed! As a guide, use Loyola’s “Contemplation to Gain Love.” Step by step, he can enable you to see God at work for you in all of nature and of grace. His response to the wonder of being so blessed is his most famous prayer, the Suscipe:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.
Gratitude, as a discipline, takes desire, commitment and a plan. Like any good discipline, it can free us from what is bad and free us for what is better. Gratitude can help preserve us from sin and form us for holiness.
When I write next, I will consider true and false optimism at the start of a new year. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Listen to Fr. McTeigue discuss the discipline of gratitude on Relevant Radio.