It is in the midst of difficulties that gratitude needs to begin...
Have you ever done something extraordinary for someone and not received a thank you? Or maybe you received a thank you note a year later, or the casual comment: “Oh, by the way, that thing you did for me last year, just wanted to say thanks.”
It can seem a little insincere, or at least somewhat distracted. It can make you wonder about the other person’s ability to live in the present. For that is where our gratitude should be: in the present. St. Thomas Aquinas says that gratitude is spontaneous and if it is compelled, it is less sincere. (ST II, q. 106, a 1, ad 2)
It is said hindsight is 20/20, but gratitude should be present even when we cannot see the full picture.
Last year was a difficult year for many of us, to say the least. Now that there is some perspective on the events of the past 12 months, we may be able to see the good that God is bringing out of our trials and confusion, and only now do we sometimes have a sense of gratitude for those things.
But it is in the midst of the difficulties of last year that an initial gratitude should have been present. For, if we are to follow Christ, we must imitate Him, Who ‘the day before He suffered, took break into His holy and venerable hands, and with eyes lifted to heaven, unto Thee, God, His almighty Father, giving thanks to Thee, He blessed, broke and gave it to His disciples…’
Christ gave thanks before He suffered. He gave thanks knowing He was to suffer. He gave thanks knowing Judas was betraying Him. He gave thanks knowing Peter would deny Him. He gives thanks always. He is present in a sacrament, which itself means thanksgiving: the Most Holy Eucharist.
We, of course, are not Jesus and we struggle with gratitude when circumstances are difficult. It is easy to begin the litany of all that is wrong with our lives and how we think things should be. It becomes an ever-narrowing circle going around and around. We may even delude ourselves in thinking we’ve been so strong and singular because of all the suffering that we’re going through.
“Those in whom self predominates seem to suffer much; for they make everyone around them continuously aware of everything that they are enduring, whereby incessant self-pity and complaints, or by incessant bravado and boasting about their fortitude. But the fact is, the heart concentrated on self contracts, it dries up and shrinks and goes hard like a nut withered inside its husk, and nothing can get through the hardness of its littleness… But those who are Christocentric, in whom Christ waxes strong, expand and are wide open to the grief of the world. They are wide as the arms of the crucified are wide and their hearts, unable to contain the world’s suffering in themselves, break open, as Christ’s did and let the torrent of His pity sweep through them.” – Wood of the Cradle Wood of the Cross by Caryll Houselander
An excellent example of this expansion of gratitude in the midst of troubles is seen in the Holy Family. Mary is told she will be the mother of the Savior. Wonderful! Then look at how many difficulties happen… Joseph is afraid to take her as his spouse at first, they have to travel to Jerusalem while she is pregnant, innocent babies are murdered in the search of her child, they have to live in exile in Egypt, a prophet tells her a sword will pierce her heart… And on and on.
We only have to briefly look at the lives of the Holy Family to gain a reality check on how we should be responding to the events of our lives. Are we focused on what we are suffering or are we looking with longing for what God wants to do in our lives? And are we grateful for it?
At a time when we give thanks for our material goods and our family and friends, raise it up a notch or two and give thanks for even your difficulties and for the sheer fact that you exist. Remember that it is by God’s generosity that you exist at all. He, Who is infinite goodness, wanted to share that goodness with you, and you were created.
Being grateful for our very life and all that it entails within the providence of God, prompts us to give of ourselves to others and to God. It is then that real life begins, no matter what the circumstances. It is then that we begin to resemble the God in Whose image we were made: the Father Who gives Himself to the Son, the Son Who gives Himself to the Father, and the Holy Spirit Who is that love between the Father and the Son. It breaks us out of our limited selves into the eternal.
A beautiful, but simple example of this is illustrated in a patient we had a few years ago… Marie was middle aged, but bed ridden due to her cancer. She had led a rough life, including selling and doing drugs. This resulted in almost no relationship with her daughter when she was growing up. Yet, Marie’s daughter came to visit her every day she could. One day, I could hear the two of them laughing and talking. They were not laughing about shared memories, like many of our patients do with their families, because there were no fond memories to share.
Later when talking to her daughter, I remarked how happy they seemed together despite their past, of which she had not a shred of bitterness. She said, “I am just so grateful I have the time to spend with her now. I can talk with her about my son, about my life now, and even about God. And I have hope now that we will see each other in heaven.” They were able to “redeem the time” together. (Ephesians 5:16) That is the power of gratitude.