The day dedicated to thanks-giving reminds us that we need to do more of it. Here’s a tip.
But how to give thanks all year round, that’s the challenge. I have one suggestion of a painless way to do this at least once a day, perhaps two or three times. Use the classic Catholic grace at meals. I wrote about the duty and privilege of saying grace at our meals three years ago in “The Easy Act of Witness That Tells Strangers God Exists.”
You know the classic grace: “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty. In Jesus’ name, amen.” I tend to zip through it and sometimes say it almost as if it were one word. With real gratitude to God but without being grateful for anything in particular. Except maybe the food, because it’s sitting in front of me.
Here’s what I try to do. First, to say the grace quickly but with attention to each word. I try to remember the main thing I’m asking for (the first two words) and of whom I’m asking it (the third and fourth words). As I pray the whole grace, I try to bring to mind a picture of everything I’m thanking God for, because otherwise the thing may just remain a word, whose reality I don’t really feel.
“And these thy gifts” means everything, because God’s generosity knows no bounds. As I say “and these thy gifts,” I do two things.
First, I picture the food, which is the immediate reason I’m praying. I don’t peek, because then I might get distracted. And I try to remember at least one of the gifts that brought me to enjoy this gift of food: a home to eat it in or a restaurant to go to, the family or friends I’m with, the money to pay for it, the people who grew it and prepared it and brought it to the grocery store, and if I’m out, the car to get to the place and the roads that lead to the place.
And other things, too, because seeing one thing to thank God for leads to seeing others. We get our food as a part of an amazing complex system, which comes to us as a gift. There’s no reason I in Pittsburgh should have fish and chips on Fridays, or guacamole or peanut butter or blueberries out of season. That I try to remember and give thanks for.
I could keep going, but it’s a short prayer. And there’s a point at which my family or friends would wonder what’s wrong with me or the people in the restaurant would think I’m showing off how religious I am. And other things require my thanks. The point isn’t to think of a lot, but to think of something. Saying the grace this way can add just a couple seconds, when you get good at it.
Second, I picture something else for which I’m thankful. Or someone. It may be the family or friends I’m with. It may be something or someone they remind me of. Being thankful for my friend Richard sitting across the table reminds me of my friends Mark or Rob or Wes, and they remind me of the man I don’t know well but whose company always cheers me and the woman whose life always points me to Jesus.
As with the first thing I do, thanking God for something leads me to thank him for other things. And more helpfully, to see how many things I’ve been given that I never before saw as gifts. We all have thousands of things for which we should thank God. And hundreds of people we know personally to thank him for having brought into our lives.
Just thinking about my work, I can think of hundreds of gifts. Books and computers, the tools of my trade, which make me better at what I do. And heat so I can work without shivering. And light so I can work after dark. Editors bold enough to correct me and kind enough to encourage me. Readers who do the same. And a wife who supports me in doing what I felt called to do.
Sometimes my thanks are more overtly pious than others. If I’m sitting at my desk in my study at home, I’ll look for a bit at the crucifix on my wall or the statue of Our Lady sitting in front of my computer.
Looking at Jesus on the Cross and His Mother often makes me think of the Mass, and that makes me think of our priest and the people there, and of the building which I love, and the Pieta shrine at the side at which l love to pray after Mass every Sunday. And thinking of the Mass often makes me think of Confession, and the way God gives me a chance to say I’m sorry, to hear his words of forgiveness, and to walk out and start over.
The grace at meals gives me a way to thank God every day and a way to thank him for particular gifts. Not just a generic “Hey God, thanks for everything, you’re the best!” but a real and heart-opening thanks for this thing and that person. It helps me develop the habit of seeing the world around me as a gift and not as just the background or foundation I deserve. And it’s painless, if you’re already saying a grace.
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