One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he had answered them, asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ (Mark 12:28-30)
Here in Canada, since our harvest comes earlier, we celebrate Thanksgiving in October. Some time ago in his Thanksgiving homily, our priest said something that really gave me pause. Essentially he said that gratitude to God is more important than any other pious act—including prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Many of us have come to the BSP* in response to a felt call to increased prayer and fasting. Sometimes it is easy to feel that if we live the Rule to the best of our ability, we have done what we should. But if our practice does not flow from a grateful heart, even if we manage to live the Rule perfectly, our sacrificial gifts will carry the stench of ingratitude. How can God be pleased?
In this gospel reading, our Lord Jesus teaches us that to love God above all is the first and greatest commandment. What could be more fitting than to express that love through the practice of constant gratitude?
Much is said about gratitude these days. Popular western culture has made it trendy. But in making it trendy, God is very often left out of the formula. In popular culture, gratitude is a feeling not directed up, but in. We are told we can feel good about ourselves when we are not taking things for granted. A worthy-sounding sentiment, but anything directed inward is a temptation to idolatry.
When we direct our gratitude upwards, when we give thanks to the Source of all good, the heavens open up. The Creator reveals a facet of himself in each created thing. In contemplating God’s infinite generosity, our love for him cannot help but grow. Gratitude flows as we see his holy face in everything good and our gratitude gives him glory.
When we already spend one to two hours per day in prayer, it is difficult to imagine we might be leaving anything out. But Jesus tells us to pray always, not just one or two hours a day. If we make constant gratitude a practice, this will fulfill most beautifully what Jesus has asked us to do.
I happen to be someone who is by nature unobservant. But in attempting to live a life of constant gratitude to God, I have begun to make an effort to not only notice my surroundings, but give thanks at all times for even the smallest things. In fact it is the smallest things that often evoke the strongest feelings of gratitude to my loving Father to whom no detail is too small to be left out. I am beginning to see him as a doting Father, and my love for him expands with each new expression of thanks.
Practically speaking it is easy to get caught up in our daily duties, our studies, or things that require our undivided attention. Sometimes at the end of my work day, I look back and see that there were very few times I gave thought to God, much less thanked him for his blessings. For me, it helps if I have a visual image of Jesus near to me. Perhaps the chair next to me is empty. As I work I can imagine him in it and thank him for each little thing, even asking him to correct the mistakes I make, especially when it comes to my dealings with others. I can offer up my daily inconveniences and challenges linking them to the cross, the image of which should fill me at all times with heartfelt gratitude. I can picture him walking with me, handing me the tools I need to do a good job, and most especially I can get in the habit of seeing him in the faces of those He sends me.
It is especially in difficult times that our gratitude should be given to the Father. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” God’s love never fails. What the evil one means for our destruction, God can use for great blessings and glory.
St. Paul tells us that in our sufferings, we make up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. What an unimaginable honor! He allows us to participate in his total love for souls by allowing us to take up our crosses for their sake. Seen in this light, it is our sufferings for which we should be most grateful.
It may at first take a conscious effort, but through practice we can integrate gratitude into every moment of our lives. In this way the sacrifices we make and the prayers we offer will be carried upward on the fragrant incense emanating from our thankful hearts. God will indeed be pleased.
To my American brothers and sisters: may you have a holy and blessed Thanksgiving holiday. And to everyone reading this, may gratitude become for us a daily practice of holiness for the glory of God the Father. Amen.