We might have a bad toddler habit when it comes to our Savior ...
How many times have you witnessed the following scene?
You bring your recently cleaned and freshly clothed toddler, in photoworthy splendor, to visit Aunt Mildred. Dear old Aunt Mildred gushes appropriately over the family’s new treasure, and then produces a beautiful display of freshly baked cookies. Your little darling becomes feral and rushes towards the sweets. You somehow arrest the tyke’s progress towards the sugary goodness and ask, “What do you say?” Without breaking eye contact with the cookies, your straining toddler drones, ‘THANKYOUAUNTMILDRED” and then rockets to the cookies…
But that’s only little kids, right? Only children not yet having reached the age of reason need to be prompted repeatedly to express audible (yet nonetheless perfunctory) thanks—right?
Well, I’m not so sure. A moment’s honest self-examination will reveal that most of us, most of the time, are showered with graces and blessings and mercies, and if we acknowledge them at all, we rush by them, forgetting not just the gifts of the giver but also the giver of the gifts.
That’s a failure in justice and manners, of course. But more than that—it’s dangerous.
Here you might object: “But Father! I’m so busy—you know, doing all of the things!” And it’s true. We are busy, running around, multi-tasking, distracted, anxious. Consequently, we rush past the graces and mercies, and we fail to store up the savorings of all of God’s goodness on our behalf. That’s a failure in justice and manners, of course. But more than that—it’s dangerous. When life wounds us and disappoints us, we become vulnerable to spiritual attack in the forms of fear and discouragement. If we don’t have an abiding awareness that the God who has been so good to us in the past is still God now, we are going to be susceptible to despair and worse. How shall we guard against that, and still do what needs to be done?
Said another way: How can we perform our daily duties and still do right by God? How can parents change one more diaper or prepare one more meal? How can professors go out and give another lecture? How can priests write one more homily when they’d rather sleep in? (Present company excepted, of course.) The answer is very simple: Gratitude.
When every other source of motivation runs out, when every other resolution to do the right thing fails, when every act of the will falters, there is always a reason to be grateful. When we are mindful of how generous and merciful God has been on our behalf, then our hearts will expand with gratitude and drive out every excuse or encumbrance that would keep us from holiness.
How do we cultivate a habit of gratitude? Again, it is maddeningly simple; I say it is maddening because it so simple that we have no excuse not to do it, and fallen human nature loves excuses above all else.
We need to take 5 minutes each day and just count our blessings. That’s it. Count our blessings, and then act as truly grateful people act. That is the path to holiness; that is the means of striving to enter through the narrow gate, day by day, until we meet God face to face. Only living as a grateful people can we truthfully proclaim the words of the Psalm 145: “Let all your works give you thanks, O Lord, and let your faithful ones bless you.”
Yes, I know, easier said than done. What’s a good way of getting the doing done? I was told that Jesuits of an earlier time were encouraged to keep a “Lights Book,” that is, a little notebook to record the blessings and inspirations that one has received throughout the day. That notebook can become a portable “Thanks be to God” file. When we are ready to give up or give in, we can have a look at a record, written in our own hand, that details how faithful God has already been. (I recommend an Apica CD-11 A5 Notebook, which is small enough to keep in your wallet.)
Another benefit of keeping a Lights Book is that it slows us down. If only for a few minutes we have to slow down, sit down, and call upon memory, imagination, and will. These powers of the soul tend to be neglected for those who keep a modern and manic pace. These decaffeinated moments, punctuating our day, are good for our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Try it for a month and see for yourself the difference it can make. It’s not only useful—it’s the right thing to do.
When I write next, I will speak about a surprising element of family life. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.