More than just a feeling, gratitude is actually a practice: one we can cultivate and even develop, which will transform our experience of ourselves, our lives, and our world. Br. David Vryhof offers practical encouragement for rediscovering this essential, countercultural practice. Find out why there is always reason for gratitude.
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Br. David Vryhof lives at the Monastery in Cambridge where he serves as Communication Brother. He loves that his day is grounded in the Daily Office (while his actual office is grounded in plenty of post-it notes and to-do lists!). He is the community's sole sports fan.
Read about David's vocation journey to the Monastery.
cultivating our awareness and response
I have a memory of my fifth-grade teacher asking us to write a short paragraph describing the things in our lives for which we were thankful. I sat for the longest time just staring at that piece of paper. I couldn’t think of a thing for which I was thankful.
I was surrounded by gifts, but I didn’t recognize them as gifts, and so I couldn’t begin to express my gratitude for them. I naively assumed that everyone had food and clothing, a loving family and a comfortable home. I was unaware of how privileged I was to enjoy these things on a daily basis, and simply took them for granted.
Gratitude springs from the awareness that we have been given a gift. Often this awareness comes upon us in sudden and unexpected ways. We are walking along and suddenly our breath is taken away by the beauty of the autumn leaves, or we are talking with a close friend and suddenly we realize what a gift this person has been to us. We’ve been given a gift: something has come to us from outside ourselves – something unexpected and even undeserved – and our lives have been enriched by it. We feel grateful.
This awareness can rise in us suddenly and unexpectedly, but it can also be cultivated. We can develop our awareness, and learn to practice gratitude. Learning to see with eyes of gratitude, becoming more aware of the gifts that surround us on every side, is an ability that needs to be kept alive through constant practice. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “The insights of wonder must be constantly kept alive.”
There is not much in our culture that encourages this sense of wonder or that leads us to gratitude. More often, we are seduced into thinking that we need to acquire more in order to be truly happy and fulfilled. The advertising that assaults us each day encourages us to be greedy for more gifts. Our neighbors or co-workers describe to us their latest purchases with a sense of pride and satisfaction, as if these things were proof of their personal importance and worth. If we listen to these voices, we won’t feel much gratitude. Instead, we’ll start thinking we don’t have enough and that we need to get more…and more…and more. To resist the lure of voices that tell us we don’t have enough takes courage and determination.
We can nurture a spirit of gratitude by cultivating our awareness that we are surrounded by gifts. But to become aware of these gifts is not enough. Gratitude moves beyond the recognition of the gift to the recognition of the giver. In some ways, the gift itself is secondary in importance. What is more important is the exchange that takes place when we express our gratitude. The offering of the gift is only complete when we receive it with gratitude, and when that gratitude is expressed. Without the expression of gratitude, something is missing, for both the giver of the gift and the one who receives it.
Don Postema, author of a book entitled Space for God, tells of his experience of bringing a gift to a birthday party when he was a boy. “The birthday child met me at the door,” he says, “grabbed the gift without a thank-you, ran into the room, and threw it among all the other gifts.” “Why do I still remember that incident?” he asks. “Because the giving of that gift is not complete over all these years! I never received the thank-you note needed to close the circle and establish a mutual exchange.” True gratitude leads us beyond the gift itself and unites us with the giver, closing the circle and establishing a mutual exchange.
We Christians proclaim that God is the giver of all good gifts. We acknowledge that all that we have and all that we are is the result of God’s divine goodness and love. God is the giver of every good gift: the gifts of nature, the gifts we receive in and through others, even the gift of our own selves.
“To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us,” writes Thomas Merton, “and (God) has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of (God’s) love, every moment of existence a grace… Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference…
“We live in constant dependence upon this merciful kindness of God and thus our whole life is a life of gratitude – a constant response to (God’s) help which comes to us at every moment.”
“Our whole life is a life of gratitude.” Even in difficult times there are reasons to be grateful. We are alive. We are loved. We are surrounded by beauty and wonder. And God is near, loving us and supporting us and making a way for us. We know that nothing can separate us from God’s love – no circumstance, no power on earth or in heaven, no trouble or hardship – nothing! We are and will be forever loved and held by God!
Can you look back on hard times you have known in your past with genuine gratitude for graces received? Perhaps you have become stronger through the trials; almost certainly you have learned from them something about yourself or about life that will help you going forward. Trials can make us more sensitive to the suffering of others, or help us to appreciate things we have taken for granted.
There is always reason for gratitude, which is why we say in our Eucharistic prayer, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to You...” It is why Saint Paul instructs the Thessalonians to “give thanks in all things.” He does not ask them to give thanks for all things, but in all things. Even in darkness, difficulty or despair, Paul found reasons to give thanks and praise to God. Expressing gratitude in difficult times is an expression of trust in God, and an acknowledgment that God is present and at work in every time and place, always bringing life out of death, hope out of despair, joy out of sadness – even when we can’t see it.
I cannot stress enough how counter-cultural and how radical this practice of “giving thanks to God in all things” really is. Nor can I overstate how completely it will change our perspective on life. It will not take away every pain or sorrow, but it will transform us in the midst of them.