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Our Daily ‘Thank You’ to God

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Annually, on the fourth Thursday in November, Americans gather with family and friends for a Thanksgiving feast. At this time, more overtly, our thoughts turn toward the people and blessings in our lives for whom we are and should be grateful. Additionally, we review our life and consider how fortunate we are for our health, well-being and certainly our relationship with Christ as religious and priests.

While it is important that we, as a nation, set aside a particular time in our calendar to give thanks, we all should ask, “How have we manifested an attitude of thanksgiving throughout the year?” Indeed, gratitude should characterize every aspect of our daily life, both the positives and negatives, the blessings and failures, and not simply at the time of our national Thanksgiving.

In Good Times, and Bad

Gratitude is easiest to express and finds its grandest manifestations when we experience the many blessings, successes and triumphs in life. When things are going well, prayers are answered as we wish and hope, and we find ourselves “on top of the world” it is rather easy to be grateful. We can perceive with all our senses when things are going well. When good fortune comes our way, we experience a windfall or things fit nicely into the appropriate categories of life, we express our gratitude. At these times, it can be easier to thank the people who have helped us along the way, as well as our good and gracious God, who makes all things possible.

Sometimes, however, when these many blessings come our way, we simply continue down the road with no overt plan to give thanks for what has transpired — that is, we have managed to avoid many of the pitfalls and difficulties that are experienced along the road of life for a time. Our lack of gratitude, while possibly mindless and even innocent, needs to be transformed into an expression of thanksgiving.

Failure to express gratitude is a contradiction of the Christian message. And this expression of gratitude must go beyond its joyful and positive expressions and be manifested in every aspect of our life, including, and possibly even more important, failures and similar negative occurrences.

Initially, when our life is out of balance and we experience the negative elements in life, it might seem inappropriate or even impossible to express gratitude. Yet the negative and difficult experiences of life are almost always the greatest opportunities to learn important lessons and move in a more positive direction in our lives. As religious and priests, we are privileged to minister to our brothers and sisters who walk the road with us, and generally it is a smooth and uncluttered path, for ourselves and the people we serve.

When things are going well, there is little need to reflect, re-evaluate or consider how we might change or have done things differently to produce a better outcome. When the positive reigns, we simply skip along the avenue of life somewhat mindlessly with few cares in the world. It is the difficult and problematic situations we experience that provide not only the greatest challenges but also many of the best opportunities to show gratitude.

Lessons Learned

Ministerial failures can be a source that produces much gratitude. How, you ask, can one be grateful when our best plans produce little? The answer, of course, is that failure forces us to re-evaluate what we have done or, in some cases, failed to do. We are forced to look honestly at our methods, honestly evaluate what we have done, and seek to move in a different direction. This pattern of reflection and movement on a different path is equally true if we personally fail. Personal choices that lead us astray from the narrow path that leads to life (cf. Mt 7:13-14) and place us on a deviant route, away from God and life, will in the end, when we bottom out, force us to reflect and change.

What led us to deviate from the narrow path — which was at times windy and possibly occluded by darkness and strewn with hurdles — that we knew was the only true path leading to God? Discovering the answers to this question will force us to generate — and certainly should — a great sense of gratitude that, as difficult as it was to endure, the lesson learned will be permanent. We must be grateful to learn the lessons that lead us to life, even if the process is difficult and painful.

Church failures, while probably not events in which we personally participated, also require change and movement in a different direction. The sex abuse crisis, which came to light most critically in 2002, is the perfect recent example of a Church failure that has produced a new direction, one that will hopefully eliminate problems and produce much positive fruit in the future.

The most important lessons in life, and thus the events that can produce the greatest gratitude, most often are found in events that we would rather not have endured. The adversities of life teach us our limitations and help us to understand our human brokenness and the sinfulness that is inside each of us. We do not want to repeat the negative experiences of life; thus we learn quickly and permanently that a new direction is required. For this insight, gratitude is indeed appropriate. Thus, as strange as it sounds, we find our greatest blessings and best opportunities to manifest gratitude from the difficulties, negatives and failures of life.

Gratitude in Scripture

Scripture provides us with numerous examples of how the negative can be transformative and requires gratitude. Several prophets encountered great opposition to their words. Yet they boldly and proudly proclaimed God’s word, grateful that they had been chosen. Isaiah did not believe himself worthy of the call to be a prophet (cf. Is 6:5-8), but his response in gratitude assisted his Hebrew brothers and sisters before, during, and even after the infamous Babylonian Exile (c. 587-537 B.C).

The prophet Amos was a dresser of sycamores, yet he was called by God to preach the word to the northern kingdom of Israel, and he did so, and expressed gratitude for the prophetic ministry the Lord gave him. Yet, St. Paul wrote to Timothy that the Lord calls us when it is “convenient or inconvenient” (2 Tm 4:2).

Ezekiel preached God’s word to the dispirited Hebrews in exile in Babylon. Still, he could be grateful that his message was salvific. In powerful metaphorical language, he predicted how the dead bones of the Hebrews would once again rise, and God would breathe spirit into them, and they would return home (cf. Ez 37:1-14). Ezekiel lost his wife (cf. 24:18), certainly a tragedy, but it may have set him free to engage his ministry more fully, and for that he could be grateful.

The two greatest apostolic saints, Peter and Paul, experienced significant failures that transformed their lives and, I am certain, for which in their own way they were grateful. God entered when they least expected it, teaching them important lessons and placing them on the road that led to sainthood and eternal life.

We recall how St. Peter went from the heights of greatness to the depths of rejection in a few short moments. Jesus asks: “‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ [The disciples] replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah of one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But, who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:13-16). Jesus then proclaims Peter the rock upon which the Church will be built. He presents him with the keys of the kingdom: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (16:19).

Immediately thereafter, however, Peter totally rejects the idea that Jesus must suffer and die, prompting the Lord to severely chastise the apostle he just exalted: “Get behind me, Satan! … You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (v. 23). When Jesus is arrested by the Roman authorities, Peter three times denied any knowledge of Christ, as Jesus had earlier predicted (cf. 26:69-75).

Peter’s great failure, however, leads to his three great affirmations of love for the Lord when Jesus appeared to the apostles after the Resurrection (cf. Jn 21:15-17). Peter’s failure once again became an opportunity to be grateful that he was broken, incomplete and sinful; he realized the need to right his ship of life and begin to sail once again in a different direction with calm waters that lead to eternal life.

Similarly, St. Paul experienced significant failures that prompted him to re-evaluate his life and move in a different direction. Although he did not understand it at the time, his approval of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (cf. Acts 8:1), forced him later in life to be willing to suffer and eventually die for the Lord. Paul’s famous conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9), and the transformation that occurred through this event, had to be a great source of thanksgiving for Paul.

Moving from being a zealous persecutor of Christians to being a great advocate for this new faith and its first major evangelist, Saul of Tarsus, now Paul the apostle, set himself on a new path. God entered his life dramatically and overtly. Certainly, it could not have been easy for Paul as, understandably, many early Christians were afraid of him based on his record. Yet, grateful that God had pointed out to him his real purpose in life, Paul was unafraid and undeterred in his ministry, completing three long and arduous missionary journeys, founding numerous Christian communities, and producing a corpus of letters that are the earliest and some of the most significant documents of Christian history and theology.

Gratitude is a quality that is endemic to the Christian spirit. While on the surface it might seem easiest to express gratitude during the positive, uplifting and triumphal events of life, the reality is that our thanksgiving is best expressed during the difficult times in life. It is in these latter events that we learn significant lessons that transform our lives, and hopefully place us on a more positive path that leads to eternal life. Let us, therefore, be always grateful, but especially during the most challenging, difficult and negative times of life. The lessons we learn are permanent and, therefore, the gratitude that we express will be that much greater and appreciated by God.

FATHER RICHARD GRIBBLE, CSC, is a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross and presently serves as a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts.


An Attitude with Gratitude

Addressing the faithful at his Angelus address on Dec. 30, 2020, Pope Francis encouraged Catholics to change the world by being “bearers of gratitude.” Thanksgiving, he said, is the hallmark of an authentic Christian life.

Pope Francis said, “Above all, let us not forget to thank: if we are bearers of gratitude, the world itself will become better, even if only a little bit, but that is enough to transmit a bit of hope.

“The world needs hope. And with gratitude, with this habit of saying thank you, we transmit a bit of hope. Everything is united and everything is connected, and everyone needs to do his or her part wherever we are.”


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