I smiled politely but inwardly rolled my eyes and sighed. I had come far, driving for several hours across state lines for this conversation. I was searching for peace, the peace that I heard Jesus promise and holy people speak of, but that was elusive in my own life. I was experiencing darkness and angst, teetering on the edge of depression. I thought this holy priest would offer helpful advice, transformative insight, something beyond: “Try keeping a journal of things you are grateful for.”
Gratitude?!? It was vaguely offensive, this suggestion that my problems arose because I was ungrateful. And a Gratitude Journal seemed little better than a “self-help” suggestion. Surely, if self-help propaganda actually worked, it wouldn’t be an ongoing industry.
I roll my eyes harder, today, at the naïve and stubborn girl I was then. Because when I finally took this priest’s advice, years later, it was transformative.
He was right, of course, that gratitude brought with it an increase in happiness and tranquility. Science in fact confirms this: studies repeatedly show that those who practice gratitude are generally happier and healthier. But in the spiritual realm this truth runs much deeper. In recent years I have meditated often on this mystery of gratitude, and how in fact gratitude is at the heart of the spiritual life in ways that are not immediately apparent.
First, gratitude orients us toward God. Gratitude as grace is more than an expression of contentedness, more than an acknowledgement of the good things in our lives. It is a recognition of, a turning towards, the Giver of these gifts. It is not coincidence that the first prayer children learn to pray is the practice of gratitude, of receiving and responding to the goodness of God. Gratitude is the first expression of the faith that saves us.
When in today’s Gospel Jesus remarks with dismay that only one of the ten lepers He healed has come back to thank Him, it is tempting to read this as a scolding for a breach of etiquette, as though Jesus were little more than a divine first-century Miss Manners. But what Jesus is lamenting is a matter of relationship. We are called as Christians not just to be thankful for someTHING, but thankful to someONE. Gratitude turns the heart toward the Giver. It is the relationship, this coming to the Giver, that saves.
Second, gratitude increases our capacity for God’s gifts. Gratitude in turn unlocks other blessings. It is a mystery of faith that I have come to recognize experientially: our gratitude actually increases the gifts of God.
At first I was put off (again!) by this idea. It seemed to be just another quid pro quo, a means of “earning” grace by playing nice and saying the right things. Worse, it seemed to demean God, suggesting He was crankily waiting for us to respond properly before giving us more good things.
It was living in the country that I began to understand why this might be—why it was more than just spiritual tit for tat, a reward for good behavior. I had discovered early upon my move home on that our basement was vulnerable to floods, and when that spring brought prolonged record rainfall I feared the worst. But each day that I checked, the basement remained dry. It was only after weeks of dry and drought that a short burst of rain sent the water rushing in.
The reason is simple: when ground is dry it becomes hardened, and the water cannot penetrate quickly enough and so runs off the surface of it creating the flooding. But as the earth receives water, it softens, allowing it to receive more and more. Similarly, the more our hearts are open to God and His gifts, the more He can give to us without “drowning” us. The more we gratefully receive, the more we are capable of receiving what God gives us.
Finally, gratitude keeps present in our hearts and minds the goodness of the Giver. As we remember our blessings and the ways in which God has provided for our past, we carry the seeds of hope for our future, even in seasons of scarcity and suffering.
“For all that has been, Thanks. To all that shall be, Yes.”– Dag Hammarskjöld