“Count your blessings.” How often have we heard that phrase? How often have we ignored it? Every now and then, we should stop what we are doing and take a little time to reflect upon the things for which we are truly grateful.
Gratitude is a significant theme in the Sacred Scriptures, and we find expressions of gratitude and thanks very prominent in the Psalms, the Gospels and the letters of St. Paul. The theme of gratitude is particularly evident in the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians. This letter is sometimes called the “letter of joy.” In it, Paul thanks God on behalf of the Philippian Christian community. His greeting strikes a note of joy that resonates throughout the whole letter. Paul is grateful for the community members’ participation in promoting the Good News and sharing their faith in Jesus Christ. The Philippian community is a community near and dear to Paul’s heart. The devotion and faith of the Philippians make them his pride and joy.
Paul certainly feels affection for the Philippian community. However, the affection that he feels for the community is more than just human sentiment. Paul identifies it with the affection that Christ has for the Philippian believers. It is really the love of Christ conveyed through Paul. Paul sowed the seeds of the Good News among the members of the Philippian community, and God made sure it took root in their hearts, guiding its progress until the day of Christ Jesus.
Paul writes this letter from prison; we are not sure where, but scholars suggest Ephesus. While it is clear that he suffers in his imprisonment, he is not despondent — he is suffering for Christ. His affectionate yearning for the Philippians motivates Paul to give thanks and pray for them. He prays that they may grow in union with Christ, becoming more and more aware of what it means to be one with him, so that they might be able to discern what is truly good — truly of value — as they await the day of Christ Jesus. The letter to the Philippians is truly the “letter of joy.” It is a rejoicing of faith based on a profound understanding of Christ’s unique role in salvation. Paul is grateful that God chose him to be the instrument to plant the seed of the Gospel among the Philippians.
What is gratitude? Gratitude is an expression of a free and benevolent encounter; it is a transformative power; it is a disposition; it is an attitude and a skill to be honed; and it is a discipline.
Romano Guardini, in his book, “Learning the Virtues That Lead You to God,” speaks about three conditions for gratitude. First, gratitude exists only between an “I” and a “Thou.” It is not simply an abstract notion, but rather, as Guardini writes, “an expression of a personal encounter” in which a person has a particular need or desire met by another person. It is a dynamic, which “becomes the basis of community.” Second, it exists only in the realm of human freedom. Gratitude is possible for the one who receives when a gift is freely given, or a need is met voluntarily. Third, it can only exist in a spirit of reverence for the other. Guardini says that the one “who gives the gift must do so with reverence for the one who receives.”
Guardini adds that gratitude is also a disposition. “Human need is not the only occasion which can give rise to gratitude.” Any gift given, whether there is a need or not, can inspire a sense of gratitude. In the action of giving and thanking, we encounter a spark of the divine. The world is a constant, abiding gift of God to us.
There are biblical stories, which serve as examples of the transformative power of gratitude. Gratitude may lead to a desire to serve and to give generously. Jesus, in an encounter with Zacchaeus, who is a tax collector and a sinner, honors him by being a guest in his house. Zacchaeus, grateful for the favor shown to him by a man of God, promises to give to the poor and to pay back four times anyone he may have defrauded. (Luke 19:8) The Gerasene demoniac, liberated by Jesus, becomes a disciple and preaches the Good News. (Mark 5:19-20) The Samaritan woman at the well, offered living water, shares the Good News of her discovery of the Messiah. (John 4:39-42) (These biblical references are cited by Wilkee Au and Noreen Cannon Au in the book, “The Grateful Heart: Living the Christian Message.”) In all of those stories, gratitude did not simply stay on the level of feeling, rather it transformed the person to serve and be generous.
Gratitude is both an attitude and a skill to be honed. In an article by Jeremy Adam Smith, called “Six Habits of Highly Grateful People” (in the book, “The Way of Gratitude,” edited by Michael Leach, James T. Keane and Doris Goodnough), Smith enumerates the essential things that grateful people do.
1. Grateful people now and then think about mortality and loss. Considering loss in life, and considering the big picture reality of death helps people to be grateful for what they currently have.
2. Grateful people “take time to smell the roses.” Savoring positive experiences makes them stick in a person’s consciousness, making them more beneficial to his or her psyche.
3. Grateful people see good things and good experiences as gifts and not as birthrights. The opposite of gratitude is a sense of entitlement. A narcissistic sense of entitlement can make a person self-centered, unforgiving and ungrateful.
4. Grateful people are not simply grateful for things they have, but are grateful to people. Their expression of gratitude has the capacity to strengthen social bonds and a spirit of interconnectedness.
5. Grateful people are specific about the things for which they are grateful. Naming the things for which people are thankful underlines the authenticity of their expression of gratitude.
6. Grateful people see gratitude as a means of “thinking outside the box.” It is a cognitive process, which allows people the possibility to see a bad situation as a stepping-stone to something better.
Henri Nouwen, in his article “A Discipline” (in the book, “The Way of Gratitude”) speaks about gratitude as a discipline rather than a spontaneous response to a gift acknowledged. Sometimes we have to work hard to understand the value of the gift. Sometimes it requires discipline to see grace at work. Sometimes it takes explicit effort to acknowledge that all is gift. It can be difficult to choose thankfulness over complaining, beauty over ugliness and gratitude over resentment. Nouwen writes that every gift acknowledged reveals another and another gift. Conscious acts of gratitude make a person grateful, because “they reveal that all is grace.”
Reflecting on the things for which we are grateful helps us to realize that all we are and all we have is a gift. Our God is a loving, generous and merciful giver of gifts. Gratitude must always be the response of our hearts to his bountiful love.
(This article is based on a homily Bishop Schuerman delivered Feb. 10, 2019, at St. Joseph Chapel, Layton Boulevard, for “Let Grateful Hearts to God Take Wing: A Prayer Service Celebrating Consecrated Life.”)