The graces of gratitude

In our must-have society it’s easy to forget how fortunate we really are. Sometimes it takes a crisis—like recent immigration issues in Europe—to remind us what gratitude is all about.

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Gratitude is not just a “thanks” that rolls easily off the tongue, but a deep sense of seeing the good in everything that enters and leaves our lives. I’m not good at expressing it. When I open gifts at Christmas the look on my face is akin to a toddler caught in a lie. I am sheepish, cannot look the gift-giver in the eye, and awkward. I consider what words I might say to free me from the trap, manage to mumble a quick thanks, and pray that it is enough. I don’t know why, but I am embarrassed. I feel that my words can never match up to the generosity of the gift. Perhaps your emotional intelligence is higher than mine and the gift receiving scenario doesn’t make you break out in a cold sweat, but I would guess that most of us at times either have trouble expressing gratitude or simply forget to do so. Perhaps we can’t find the right words to say, or maybe in the flurry of life we forget how blessed we truly are.

Sometimes I feel my own gratitude is faked, as if I am a child who never grew up. When I say thank you, is it only to satisfy etiquette? Because this is what is expected and I don’t want to be a bad person? Does the gratitude go any deeper?

St. Paul once wrote, “In all things give thanks.” But was he really saying we need to express gratitude in every situation—good and bad? How could that be, and what if I don’t feel like it!

If you don’t feel grateful all of the time, don’t worry, there isn’t anything wrong with you. Feelings come and go, but gratitude isn’t a feeling. It is a virtue. “It is the mark of a happy disposition to see good rather than evil,” said St. Thomas Aquinas. All virtues are habits, or dispositions, that we can practice. Gratitude is the habit of always looking on the bright side, whether we feel like it or not. This can be difficult, but with practice, all of us can get better at it.

I see this up close with my children. If you are a parent, you are probably familiar with the eternal struggle to teach your children to show gratitude. It isn’t that they don’t appreciate us, but we all know it simply isn’t natural to say “thank you.” Children take for granted the spaghetti and meatballs that appears before them, as if it magically materialized out of thin air. They assume that when their pink princess sneakers wear out they will be treated to a cost-free, brand new pair. They don’t notice the hours that parents spend washing clothes or cleaning house after bedtime.

Training children to be thankful can be odd. We must insist on a “thank-you” for passing the salt. Complaints about eating peas results in the demand to tell their mother that they are grateful for the nutritious meal her loving hands have prepared. It is a habit we are trying to instill in them, to not complain but instead take account of the effort that went into preparing the meal.

But the thanks is faked. We’ve forced it from their lips. Sometimes I feel my own gratitude is faked, as if I am a child who never grew up. When I say thank you, is it only to satisfy etiquette? Because this is what is expected and I don’t want to be a bad person? Does the gratitude go any deeper?

It is not my place to fight for what is mine and turn others away, but to open my heart and share with a thankful heart. However we solve the problem of sorting out the true immigrants seeking safety and freedom for their families from those who mean to do us harm, they cannot be simply written off.

We don’t need to create gratitude entirely on our own. God will help us. With our children, I notice that they have started to show gratitude. Just today, in fact, one of our sons helped his younger brother place a dish in the kitchen sink and his brother then thanked him. I don’t know what happened after that because I was in too much shock to notice, but my wife assures me that they went outside to happily play and continued being nice to each other all afternoon. What began as a parental requirement is now a spontaneous action based on a habit. If we practice the same, soon enough our disposition too will be much happier.

Imagine what our world would be like if we started practicing this habit outside of our little circles? What if instead of protesting the current rise in immigration in Europe and here at home in the U.S., we were actually thankful for it? This is not easy anytime, but it’s even more difficult after the recent tragedy in France. I’m not proud of my first reaction, to worry about myself and how immigration might affect me. Are we putting ourselves in danger by accepting refugees into our country? Should we keep all of the refugees out because a small number of them might be dangerous? I’m not sure. What I do know is how fortunate I am to have been born where I was and how blessed all of us are. It is not my place to fight for what is mine and turn others away, but to open my heart and share with a thankful heart. However we solve the problem of sorting out the true immigrants seeking safety and freedom for their families, from those who mean to do us harm, I at least can accept that, as people, they cannot be simply written off. They are not impositions on my lifestyle, they are wonderful human beings who have so much to offer. We can truly give thanks that we are able to welcome them into our midst.

Easier said than done, I know.

Especially when we are not only talking about a situation that’s uncomfortable because it’s new and unknown, but when someone outright wrongs us. In her autobiography The Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse of Lisieux speaks of gratitude through the story of a fellow nun in her convent who she finds difficult. The other nun accuses her of being lazy in front of the entire community:

“You found fault with me whenever you met me. I remember once I had left a cobweb in the cloister, and you said to me before the whole community: ‘It is easy to see that our cloisters are swept by a child of fifteen. It is disgraceful! Go and sweep away that cobweb, and be more careful in future …’ And yet, dear Mother, how grateful I am to you for giving me such a sound and valuable training. It was an inestimable grace.”

Have you ever considered thanking those who make you miserable or mistreat you? Truly, genuinely thanked them or, if it would be too snarky in person, at least mentally give thanks to God for sending a difficult person into your life? This person is a divine opportunity to become more like Christ because it is easy to show thanks to those we love but difficult to those we dislike, just as God loves those who seem unlovable, and to give thanks for them. By exercising gratitude, we develop greater sensitivity to the value of others: rich or poor, funny or boring, strong or weak, life of the party or wallflower.

By returning more than what is received, either by word or deed, we move beyond keeping accounts or repaying a debt and move to a true gift.

This was never made more clear to me than in my former role as a church pastor, where I met a mentally disabled man looking for help. He required help with his finances, rides to the doctor, and regular personal visits at his home to check in on his living conditions. He often tired me out to the point I wanted to start avoiding him. Over time, though, I realized he made me a better person. He gave me the gift of his friendship and taught me patience and kindness. I have since moved to a new city, but I thank God that for a time this man was in my life. I am now challenging myself to be thankful for all people as if each one were my best friend.

But expressing gratitude isn’t one-size-fits all, especially in everyday life. For instance, because I struggle with giving verbal thanks, it is good for me to also write thank-you notes. Perhaps you cannot repay a gift with one as equally valuable, but you can show your thanks through kindness. Perhaps you have received a favor; consider returning the favor in an even more generous manner (as long as it doesn’t seem to minimize the smaller gift). By returning more than what is received, either by word or deed, we move beyond keeping accounts or repaying a debt and move to a true gift.

We are all children of God who still have some growing to do. I continue to practice gratitude, even when I don’t feel like it. In fact, when I don’t feel it, I try to be even more thankful. I ask God to help me see the good in all people and situations. I pray that my external habit of thankfulness becomes a matter of the heart. Along with gratitude, I offer to God my life, a fitting gift in return for all he has given me. As the day goes on, I consider how gratitude makes the day better. My frame of mind is changed and sometimes I even begin to feel inside what I am pretending on the outside. Not only am I happier, but I am giving the gift of gratitude to others. This in turn encourages them to have a happy outlook. Truly such a world is a better place.

Fr. Michael Rennier
Fr. Michael Rennier
Fr. Michael Rennier graduated from Yale Divinity School and lives in St. Louis, Missouri with his wife and 5 children. He is an ordained Catholic priest through the Pastoral Provision for former Episcopal clergymen that was created by Pope St. John Paul II. He’s also a contributing editor at Dappled Things, a journal dedicated to the written and visual arts.

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