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The Gift of Gratitude

Being thankful at all times has the power to transform our lives

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If the joy of the Gospel is like a majestic river flowing through the Church, then its main tributary is gratitude. Gratefulness is the habit of a grace-filled life. A grateful priest is a joyful priest, and these two virtues are inseparable. From them emerges an atmosphere of appreciation for all that is and for all that God allows to be. Joy and gratitude protect priests from the onslaught of the demons of dejection, pessimism, fear and incredulity in the face of changes in one’s personal and parochial life.

The move toward being more positive than negative does not automatically exonerate one from downswings of occasional depression, from sharp-tongued, cynical critiques of authority and even, at one’s worse, from outright distrust of God. One can mask these moods by donning a happy face, but one must face their debilitating effects on an otherwise good vocation.

Potential Pitfalls of Ingratitude

Paul the Apostle expresses the Christian ideal of living in the grace of gratefulness when he advises, “In all circumstances give thanks” (1 Thes 5:18). We need our priests to show us that this is not an impossible imperative to fulfill. Any one of us could conjure up a million excuses for expressing ingratitude. Instead of showing respect toward legitimate authority, we may resort to tactics of ego-defensiveness in response to any admonishment. One can use the bully pulpit to preach world peace, but what if brother priests do not experience peace among themselves? What if bellicose expressions of ill will become the rule, not the exception?

Other signs of ingratitude might include laughing off intellectual indifference or succumbing to what writer Anthony Esolen calls “intellectual chloroform.” The “noonday devil,” acedia, slinks into one’s thoughts, causing wave upon wave of laziness and lack of follow-through. God help the priest who casts blame on others for his predicament; who begins to envy the originality beheld in a fellow servant of God; who becomes a killjoy, as if that vice were a virtue.

Cynicism posing as wisdom can never praise the good others do. The danger is that complaining about everything and being unthankful most of the time becomes second nature. One risks quenching the inspirations of the Holy Spirit and pursuing one’s own agenda in secret defiance of authority.

Can this sad plunge into the quicksand of depreciative living be stopped? How does one restore a priestly witness to the joy of the Gospel?

Becoming More Thankful

Dwelling on God’s word in heartfelt openness to its truth is a first and necessary step. The Gospel reveals the danger of advancing one’s own self-centered quest for control — no matter how much doing so proves to be unedifying and hurtful to others.

Reading what the spiritual masters have to say about how holding on to obsessive thoughts and selfish behaviors harms the faith community is always helpful. So, too, is attending to every event in life — from celebrating the Eucharist to anointing the sick — as the narration of yet another episode depicting God’s providential guidance of each person’s life.

In this way, daily happenings become windows through which one beholds — beyond fear and uncertainty about the future — avenues of redemptive meaning that turn out to be wholly in tune with one’s vocational commitments.

To be and become thankful under all circumstances allows one to engage in further reflection on the art and discipline of growing in gratitude. The following six practices can be woven into the fabric of everyday life and passed on to those God entrusts to one’s priestly care and concern.

Six Steps to Appreciation

The first of these is to catch the initial signs of ingratitude and stop this escalation, lest it impairs your physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual stamina. The joylessness that accompanies ingratitude can make you vulnerable to attempts to satisfy your feelings of emptiness — for example, with excessive food and drink. You cannot anesthetize an ungrateful heart; you have to convert it totally.

Rejoice Always!
“Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness should be known
to all. The Lord is near. Have
no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with
thanksgiving, make your requests
known to God. Then the peace of
God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in
Christ Jesus.”

— Philippians 4:4-7

The second is to let the will to be grateful heighten your awareness of undue stress, useless worry and anxious discontent. You need to examine why even occasional signs of progress do not evoke much, if any, joy. You ought also to be wary of a penchant toward negative identity — that is to say, identifying only with what someone has not said and specializing in a fault-finding mentality. There is a direct line from crabbiness and irritability to your becoming short-tempered and impatient with everybody or covering your real feelings with a veneer of inappropriate outbursts of nervous laughter.

The third is to practice as often as possible the discipline of saying a “thank you prayer.” Thank God for everything — from waking up in the morning to falling asleep at night. Bathe the day, as it were, in the holy water of thankfulness. Cut off with a “thank you prayer” the thanklessness you may feel when something does not go as you would have liked. Say “thank you, Lord” for another opportunity to humble yourself, to grow in detachment, to perfect the virtue of obedience. Such a transforming exercise can make a world of difference in your personal and ministerial life.

The fourth practice calls for the courage to redirect a bad mood caused by frustration, disillusionment, suspicion and neglect of prayer to its opposite disposition: compassion for the human condition, more reliance on God, more trust and more commitment to your life of prayer and devotion.

The fifth is to widen your vision to include renewed appreciation for God’s first revelation in creation. If you feel unthankful, stop what you are doing and take a walk. Behold the beauty of the world around you. Let the flight of a bird release your soul from its burdens and evoke gratitude to the Creator of all that is. Nature is a healing force. What a joy it is to see the sun after a few days of rain! The world, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, is charged with the grandeur of God.

The sixth practice of appreciation reminds you that you can never penetrate fully the mind and mystery of God. This humble awareness leads to your becoming less self-centered and more mystery-centered, and to your showing others how to do the same.

The Source of Hope

A priest is “another Christ” who witnesses to the childlike faith that lets us confess our nothingness and profess God’s allness. He lives the truth that to embrace the cross is the best way to dispel forecasts of gloom and replace them with belief in the Risen Christ. He assures the faithful that no pit of despair is so deep that one cannot climb out of it with the Lord’s help. Weak as he may be, he tries to become a paragon of priestly strength by yielding in faith to a mystery of saving love beyond changing times.

Our priests teach us parishioners by example that every time we fall Christ is there to help us start over again; they show us that in every end there is a new beginning, in every obstacle a formation opportunity; and they urge us to stay on board the sturdy raft of God’s word. The simplest indication that one is exercising the power of appreciation is physical — a smile instead of a frown, a word of praise instead of a smirk of dissatisfaction, a gaze of compassion instead of a wagging finger of unforgiveness.

Though our human condition causes us to drift away from time to time from the hope that does not disappoint, our priests teach us to rely on the promise that God will not leave us orphaned (see Jn 14:18). The Master keeps his word: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

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7 Signs of Living in Gratitude

1. Focus less on your imperfections and more on God’s love for you just as you are.
2. Remember with humility that in the order of grace you can do nothing without
God’s help.
3. Practice with gentleness and firmness daily conversion to Christ.
4. Adopt attitudes like equanimity that radiate the peace and joy of Jesus.
5. See the setbacks you experience as invitations to trust in the guidance of God and
to reset your course of action.
6. Use each improvement in your personal and ecclesial life, however slight it may be,
as material for your next “gratitude story.”
7. Remember always to live in imitation of Christ and teach the people of God how to
do the same.

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The Path of Gratitude

Picture yourself standing before two doors. To go through one is to promote the option of negativity; to go through the other is to adopt a more positive outlook. At such a moment your heart may feel like a veritable battlefield. Still, disappointments in yourself and others that used to breed negativity may now serve to reinforce a more positive outlook, leading to the unambiguous conviction that if God is for us, who can be against us?

The more we live in gratitude, the more inclined we are to behold the amazing way the Holy Spirit weaves these often tense threads into one grand design of gratitude. Every person in the pew benefits from the changes for the better they see in a priest who acts thankfully, remains joyful in God’s presence and convinces us to listen with our whole being to the Good News.

To reach this lofty goal, the following counsels may be helpful:

• Be friendly. While not overstepping necessary limits in relationships, try to exude an air of hospitality that makes the “least of these” feel at home. Avoid as a rule distrustful or discourteous acts of unfriendliness, such as a quick wave of dismissal, and remain flexible enough to respond as Christ would in every situation.
• Be generous. The vocation to the priesthood frees you from being so bound to the clock of functionalism that you fail to give others quality time. The soil in which the seed of gratitude takes root and bears lasting fruit is generosity.
• Be forgiving. The best way to block progress in appreciation is to be judgmental or to profile a person in the light of one’s own hard-as-stone opinions and prejudices. A true shepherd of souls never locks anyone in a box and labels them accordingly.
• Be complimentary. Withholding well-deserved praise devalues your own and others’ worth. Everyone we meet welcomes spoken or unspoken blessings and the encouragement they convey. “Benediction” means to speak well of another. The atmosphere around you becomes more formative than deformative when you refuse to allow into your vocabulary any condescending word or pejorative phrase and instead try to celebrate the equality in dignity that is ours as the adopted children of God.

Seeking God’s Guidance

The secret of this transformation is simple: give yourself to God and others to such a degree that the seeds of grateful living blossom in you to the fullest. St. Bernard of Clairvaux reached the conclusion that “ingratitude is the enemy of our souls, the annihilator of our merits, the scattering of our virtues, the loss of benefactions.” He said that this vice dries up the fountain of piety and stifles the dew of mercy. So ask God, now and always, to create more space in your heart for gratitude, praying with every priest and lay person on earth:

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Lord, yours is a shepherd’s heart that seeks those lost in the throes of ingratitude and returns them thankfully to the sheepfold of grace. Help us never again to wander away from your flock nor to let any roadblock to gratitude detour us from the path of discipleship. Soften once and for all the last remnants of hardness in our heart. Replace them with an abundance of thankfulness until that day when we are bound to you forever in thankfulness for your risen presence, embracing earth and heaven. Amen.

SUSAN MUTO, Ph.D., is dean of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh and author of “Gratefulness: The Habit of a Grace-Filled Life” (Ave Maria Press, $15.95).