I was recently speaking with a priest in Florida where I was on vacation. Among other ministries, he is the chaplain at a local prison. He has to preach to men who are incarcerated for more than a year and others as long as twenty years. Some would call this prison ‘home’ for many a year to come. He often preaches about gratitude; this surprised me. At this prison, there are no windows. The prisoners spend long hours in cinderblock rooms amid noise and a lack of any semblance of the outdoors: no sunshine, no clouds, no rain, no breezes etc. Yet he calls upon them to thank God that they are still alive, that drugs and alcohol and violence had not ended their lives already. He speaks to them that they have the time now to repent of their past misdeeds and begin a new life in Christ.
After sharing with me these thoughts, he then confessed to me how often he accuses himself of even greater ingratitude. Those prisoners had been born into situations that were much worse than he ever had to face; much was stacked against them. But if there is still hope for them, then there is still hope for himself.
I then remembered an old adage from the Jewish tradition that I tend to trot out every thanksgiving: “A good Jew should thank God at least 100 times per day!”
I look at myself, gifted with so much: life, family, faith, friends, health. And yet I get so hung up on things that don’t go the way I think they should go!
When St. Paul urges the Colossians: “Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness”, it is not just a throwaway ‘Hallmark card’ sentiment like “Have a nice day!” Dedication to something requires a complete surrender to that quality which becomes the principle and center of a person’s philosophy of action. The call of St. Paul for us to dedicate ourselves to thankfulness is more than a Thanksgiving Day wish. It means that gratitude must be the very basis of our lives. Everything flows from this thankfulness and everything leads back to that same reality. Thankfulness to Whom? To God, of course, for it is from Him that all good things come. And for what? For everything! That is a powerful saying. Remember Job: “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21)
This dedication to thankfulness nicely leads us to our primary act of worship: The Eucharist (from the Greek meaning thanksgiving). Preeminently, it is the gratitude we feel for Christ and His Atoning Sacrifice which is made present at the Mass. But it is also for everything else that God gives to us each day.
What is the opposite of gratitude? We can say simply ingratitude; but perhaps more accurately we can say that the opposite of thanksgiving is complaining about things. We live in a culture of complaining!
Even though we are in the greatest and most politically secure country in the world; even though we have so many advanced aids to living, making us more comfortable than the royalty of yore; even though we have modern medicine at our beck and call; even though we have so many freedoms; we still are a culture that complains about a great many things!
I recall my parents and how simply they lived. They were amazed at what they received in this great city and country. They came out of a country ravaged by war and poverty. They never complained about anything. They accepted adversity as being part of life. Even as I was growing up, they took all my mistakes in stride and tried to correct what they could in words that had a peace that often eludes us. I think that we get so used to the giftedness of what we have around us that we easily take things for granted. I recall that, during the last blackout, my area of Brooklyn was one of the areas that was in the dark the longest. With the electricity down, I had to sleep when it got dark and get up when it got light. Mass still continued—by candlelight, of course! I would pray and read when I had the light. Conversations were easier to come by. I gave thanks to the Lord for the simplicity that the blackout gave. I also realized how much I depended on things around me. When the lights went on, I gave thanks for electricity and for air conditioning and for the freedom to do what I wanted at what time I wanted.
Once we dedicate ourselves to seeing the good in all things and create a grateful frame of mind, I have found that things change. Or rather, my perspective on reality changed, and I felt happier and more… well, grateful!
Gratitude is not, therefore, an isolated action; but it is a state of being that influences one’s whole existence.