Gratitude as a Life Practice

“In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

This month’s great family feast of Thanksgiving in the United States is a wonderful opportunity to recognize God’s abundant blessings and express the gratitude we have stored up over the past year. But as St. Paul says, God desires that our thanksgiving be more than an occasional disposition; it is to be an integral expression of our spiritual lives. Yet in the midst of the dis-ease within the global world and our personal world, many of us are inclined to say, “How can I practice gratitude? My life is a mess; I have nothing to be grateful for.”

In A Simple Act of Gratitude, John Kralik considered his personal ground-zero state to be hopelessly irreversible. He was broke and broken, his law firm failing, his marriage dissolving in bitter divorce, his relationship with his sons severely ruptured. Then, inspired by a note he received thanking him for a gift, John started writing daily thank-you notes to help him be grateful for what he had. Within a year, his finances and friendships dramatically turned around, and soon he was appointed a Superior Court judge.

Taking gratitude practice a step further, in a 2013 TED talk, Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast underscored his belief that it is not experiences of blessing or joy that make us grateful, but rather gratefulness that makes us joyful. He added that practicing gratefulness allows us to see each given moment as a gift, as an opportunity to be wrapped in gratitude — especially as we come to know the Giver of gifts.

Besides writing thank-you letters to those living or dead (mainly during this month of the holy dead), a favorite daily gratitude practice of mine is to revisit — often during the family evening meal — three things for which I have been grateful. Such gifts might include a mountain sunset, soft rain, an early-morning breeze that causes aspen leaves to shimmer in the sun, listening to or creating music, and experiencing acts of genuine kindness, courage, loyalty or forgiveness. Generally, the circumstances that most readily give rise to thankfulness, occur when I am engaged in something personally meaningful. For example, when teaching, I might experience spontaneous gratitude in moments of inspiration — particularly in responding appropriately to a learner’s expressed need — or when students bring a genuine enthusiasm for the topic being addressed. 

Similarly, in my yoga practice, prayers of thanksgiving organically arise when I feel the warmth of the rising sun on a cool morning or know the grace of freely flowing breath. And, even when a fly has landed on my nose during meditation, I have known a graced sense of gratitude for the reminder that my contemplative silence has not gone deep enough.

Now, as Br. David says, our gratefulness does have limits. We cannot, for example, be grateful for violence, injustice or losing a loved one. Yet, when our given moment is difficult or distressing, the practice of gratefulness calls us to go deeper. The opportunity here may be to learn something — like patience, or the capacity to speak truth to power, or perhaps even to meet God in the midst of the paschal mystery. Opening our hearts to gratitude in these “givens” can transform us in a way that becomes a gift to the world. Like participation in the Eucharist, which literally means thanksgiving, when we enter into thankfulness, there’s no room for fear, and when we’re not fearful, we can’t be violent. 

Moreover, when we’re grateful we can’t help but live out of the realm of God’s abundance rather than the fear- and greed-inducing state of scarcity. We become more willing to share and can grow into generosity. Similarly, when our opportunity opens us to a graced encounter with the one who, in solidarity with our suffering, emptied himself on the cross, we become grateful for the God-with-us promise. This promise says ultimately there are no dead ends, that God’s will is to use and transform everything into good, into fuller life. Our gratefulness within painful loss or even unjust oppression can lead us to deeper compassion, to greater solidarity with those suffering humiliation, hardship, abuse, emptiness or any other diminishment. In short, we can know the gift of being closer to the divine heart.

So, perhaps this year, Thanksgiving can be more than an opportunity to share turkey and football with family and friends — and in passing give thanks for the blessings of our lives. Perhaps, it can be an opportunity to jumpstart a practice of grateful living and to live into the Thanksgiving liturgy reading:  “Bless the God of all, who has done wonders on earth; who fosters growth from the womb, fashioning it according to his will! May he grant you a wise heart”   (Sirach 50:22-23).