BY SUSAN MUTO
My book on the reasons why we ought to live in gratitude (Gratefulness: The Habit of a Grace-Filled Life) was in many ways God’s gift to me. It taught me a good lesson: to begin to be thankful for every minute of life — from my first breath to my last. Grateful living is a key to lasting happiness.
When we become, with the help of grace, more positive than negative, we move downswings of depression, cynicism, disbelief, and outright distrust of God to upswings of joy, mutual love, renewed faith, and lasting hope. Grace acts to repair, with our cooperation, the negative tears in the fabric of our body, mind, and spirit. It teaches us how to give thanks in all circumstances (see 1 Thessalonians 5:18) and fight our daily battle against distress, anxiety, and discontent.
If the joy of the Gospel is like a majestic river flowing through the Church, then its main tributary is gratitude. Grateful living enhances our attentiveness to all that is good and true and beautiful. We learn how necessary it is for health and holiness to practice appreciation in our words and actions.
In my book, I recommend six practices to enhance the art and discipline of growing in gratitude.
The first practice is learning to catch the initial signs of ingratitude and stop this escalation, lest it impairs our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual stamina. The joylessness that accompanies ingratitude can make us vulnerable to attempts to satisfy our feelings of emptiness, for example, with excessive food and drink. We cannot anesthetize an ungrateful heart; we have to ask God for the grace to convert it totally.
The second practice is letting the will to be grateful heighten our awareness of undue stress, useless worry, and anxious discontent. We need to examine why even occasional signs of progress do not evoke much, if any, joy. We 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 becoming short-tempered and impatient with everybody.
The third practice is developing 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. This cuts off the thanklessness we may feel when something does not go as we would have liked. Say “Thank you, Lord” for another opportunity to humble yourself, grow in detachment, and perfect the virtue of obedience. Such a transforming exercise can make a world of difference in our personal, social, and ecclesial 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 the life of prayer and devotion.
The fifth practice is widening our vision to include a renewed appreciation for God’s first revelation in creation. If we feel unthankful, why not stop what we are doing and take a walk? Let’s give ourselves time to behold the beauty of the world around us. Allow the flight of a bird to release our soul from its burdens and evoke gratitude to the Creator of all that is. The world, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, is charged with the grandeur of God. Nature is a healing force. How thankful we are to see the sun after a few days of rain!
The sixth practice is to walk humbly in the truth of who we are, knowing that we can never penetrate fully the mind and mystery of God. This humble awareness leads us to become less self-centered and more mystery-centered, and to show those around us how to do the same. One of the greatest favors we can bestow on others is to assure them from our own life experience that no pit of despair is so deep that one cannot climb out of it with the Lord’s help.
Gratefulness lets us say with conviction that in every end there is a new beginning, in every obstacle a formation opportunity. Grace urges us to smile, not frown, to gaze on others with compassion, not a wagging finger of unforgiveness.
Here, then, are six signs that we are advancing in the habit of a grace-filled life:
- First, we focus less on our imperfections and more on God’s love for us just as we are.
- Second, we remember with humility that in the order of grace, we can do nothing without God’s help.
- Third, we practice daily conversion to Christ with gentleness and firmness.
- Fourth, we adopt moods such as equanimity that radiate the peace and joy of Jesus.
- Fifth, we see the setbacks we experience as invitations to trust in the guidance of God and reset our course of action.
- Sixth, we use each improvement in our commitment to gratitude, however slight it may be, as proof that God will not leave us orphaned (see John 14:18).
Picture yourself standing before two doors. To go through one is to choose 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.
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)
Being grateful is inseparable from living a grace-filled life. It teaches us habitually to:
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. As a rule avoid distrustful or discourteous acts of unfriendliness, such as a quick wave of dismissal, and remain flexible enough to respond as Christ would do in every situation.
BE GENEROUS. Do not be 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 your own hard-as-stone opinions and prejudices. Never lock anyone in a box and label 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 radiant with the grace of gratitude when you refuse to allow into your vocabulary any condescending word or pejorative phrase and try instead to let the seeds of grateful living blossom fully in your soul.