As colors turned and leaves fell, trees beckoned us. I often stopping to look and sometimes stretched up mirroring their limbs. For God’s creation is good and wondrously made. Wow. Thank you. As branches also broke, limbs fell, hanging down or collapsing on the ground. I also stopped to look and sometimes let my arm bend, droop, and hang, feeling the weight of what is broken. O God, have mercy. Bodies hold it all, our diverse and competing truths. As I pray with my body, trees are teaching me to pray both gratitude and grief, including at the same time. [i]
Among the calamities of 2020, a plague of locusts caused a food shortage for millions of people across dozens of countries in the Middle East and Africa. The prophet Joel wrote to people who had experienced such crisis. Joel describes locusts “like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle. Before them, people are in anguish, all faces grow pale.”[ii] Joel wrote that the long awaited Day of the Lord would come like such a frightening plague.
“Blow the trumpet in Zion, sound the alarm on my holy mountain! … Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your heart and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”[iii]
In 1961, Swedish diplomat and second Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld died at the age of 56 in an airplane crash as he travelled to a warring region of Africa. A lifelong student of languages, Christian mysticism, history and literature, Hammarskjöld had brought his deep faith to the work which he called ‘preventive diplomacy’, the negotiation of agreements and understandings in the spirit of the UN’s mandated mission of peace-making.
After his death, Hammarskjöld’s daily journal was published under the English title Markings. Hammarskjöld saw these jottings as his own ‘negotiations’ with himself and with God. His first entry when elected to his post in 1953 expresses the faith and conviction which were to uphold him in the years ahead. He wrote, ‘For all that has been, THANKS, for all that is to be, YES!’
In this prayer of affirmation and hope, Hammarskjöld points to the essence of our common life in Christ: the offering of gratitude and thanks. As we read in the Letter to the Colossians, ‘And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ Apostle Paul writes in the First Letter to the Thessalonians, ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’
Read by Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
I Thessalonians 5:18
I have a memory of my 5th-grade teacher asking us to write a short paragraph describing the things in our lives for which we were thankful. I don’t recall any of the specifics of that assignment, but I do recall having a terrible case of “writer’s block.” 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.
Recalling it now, it seems shocking to me that a 5th-grade boy growing up in suburban America, with plenty of food and warm clothes and a comfortable home and a loving family, couldn’t think of anything for which he 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 suppose 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.
Feast of St. John Chrysostom
In 1940, Fr. Gregory Petrov, a Russian Orthodox priest, died in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia. Among his possessions was found a copy of a hymn entitled “Glory to God for All Things.” It is uncertain whether Petrov composed the hymn, but it is clear that it was written during the period of intense, coordinated persecution of the Church in Russia begun under Lenin. The systematic attempt to annihilate religious identity in Russia continued in waves of varying intensity until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The hymn so cherished by Petrov was copied and distributed secretly, sung and recited in clandestine gatherings of the faithful during those years, as Christians in the millions were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, sent to mental hospitals, barred from worshipping, praying, training new clergy or building churches. The hymn is now easy to find in English translation. I discovered it a few years ago, and my gratitude to God is always kindled anew when I return to its litanies of undaunted thanksgiving:
"I really appreciate it."
How often in a single day do you speak or hear these words? We Brothers hear them day after day, from our Friends, who write to thank us for a word we've shared, or a sermon we've posted. We are so grateful for this stream of thanks, which inspires and heartens us, that we wanted to stop and take a moment to reflect on how just powerful gratitude can be in our lives.
As our friend Anders sums it up: "Gratitude seems to be shortest path to love God with all our hearts and souls, and to love one another as ourselves . . . In gratitude, we are co-creators with God, and it is good."
Gratitude is so important that the fundamental action of Christian worship is the Eucharist, an act of gratitude that literally means "great thanksgiving." "Let us give thanks to the Lord," the celebrant invites us. And we respond, "It is right to give God thanks and praise."
Gratitude is a great gift, which we are made to receive and offer back to God. And to do that, we need to practice!
Our friend, Ruth put it perfectly: "How often we see the hole instead of the donut! How blessed we are from day to day! May God grant us the ability to see those blessings!"
Living a Day Full of Gratitude
Gratitude, like any other spiritual practice, is something we do, not just something we feel. And it's something we need to practice. To practice gratitude, we don’t need a special cushion on which to sit, nor a special lamp to light, nor a special icon on which to gaze, nor special incense to smell, nor special prayer beads to finger, nor a special prayer or mantra to recite. (None of that is in any way bad or inappropriate. It may well help. It is simply not enough.)
What is enough is here and now. The Psalmist reminds us, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118: 24). Gratitude consecrates our life and makes us real, because it makes us really available to the real presence of Christ, who is at work within us and around us – now.
We hope you'll try out these four simple invitations and see how they change your day.
6 AM: Pray your gratitude
The Psalmist asks rhetorically, “How shall I repay the LORD for all the good things he has done for me?” (Ps 116:10). Start with gratitude. Br. Geoffrey suggests that the best time to practice gratitude is first thing in the morning – even Monday mornings! (God Loves to be Thanked – Br. Geoffrey Tristram) Before you ask God for anything, say thank you for one thing or many things.
Noon: Keep your ears open
People will want to thank you today. Let them. (This can be a hard one!) They need to speak their gratitude; you need to hear it. Respond to them, “You are welcome,” and say it from the bottom of your heart. And keep your ears open to hear God’s gratitude for you. There is no one else like you, and God – believe it or not – is immensely grateful for who you are and all the good that you do.
6 PM: Express your gratitude to others
People are so easily taken for granted. Whether they be people whose labor is menial or in leadership, or whose lives are closely linked with yours, people are so easily taken for granted. You'll change their day, perhaps change their life, by expressing your gratitude for who they are and what they do. Stop throughout the day and thank someone. Make an unexpected phone-call to say thank you for something that happened, even long ago. A handwritten note can be equally powerful.
9 PM: Savor your life
Take time to remember and reclaim what is so amazingly good in your life. (Br. Luke Ditewig offers tips on how to do this in this short video.) Gratitude means saying “Yes” to the life you’ve been given, accepting the good gifts of life without resentment for what is not there, or no longer there. Try to complete the daily chapters of your life by remembering and appreciating what has been so very good today.
Read, Listen, and Watch More from the SSJE Brothers on Practicing Gratitude
- Does prayer elude you? In his article "Living Gratefully," Br. Curtis Almquist encourages a practice of gratitude, assuring us, "Gratitude in prayer is like oil to a frozen gear box." Get some tips here >
- “Our whole life is a life of gratitude,” said Thomas Merton. But how can we cultivate a spirit of gratitude in all things? Br. David Vryhof offers some suggestions in his article Life Becomes Rich: The Gift of Gratitude >
- In this short video, Br. Robert L'Esperance makes a passionate argument for how gratitude helps us embrace the newness of every moment. Watch it here >
- "Our life should overflow with thanksgiving to Jesus. Thanksgiving should be the driving force in our daily lives." Say a simple Thank you, Jesus with the late Br. John Goldring.
As they went. Not at the moment Jesus spoke. Not at the moment they met the priests. As they went. As they followed Jesus’ invitation. As they did the next thing asked, as they journeyed. As they went, they were healed. Healing may happen in motion, in process, as we go, as we live, as we follow. During a short walk or over a long journey. At a particular point in time or as a process into which we receive glimpses of insight.
Yesterday was Veterans Day – also known throughout the world as Remembrance or Armistice Day. It marks the armistice signed in Compiègne, France, between the Allies and Germany at the 11th hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, which brought an end to hostilities on the Western Front in the First World War. A time to remember with thanksgiving those who died in the two world wars.
François de Sales, the 17th century Bishop of Geneva, was revered for his insights about prayer. His recommendation for prayer: every day, “half an hour’s listening is essential except when you are very busy. Then a full hour is needed.” (1) François de Sales presumes three things about prayer:
1. Our prayer begins and ends with listening.
2. When life is very busy – like when you’re beginning a new school term, or a new internship, or a new job, or when life is very full – our discipline around prayer can easily be lost and yet it’s all-the-more important.
3. It’s essential to demarcate some time each day for prayer.
The other day when I was thinking about what I might preach on today, I kept getting distracted by memories from grade school when we learned about the first Thanksgiving. We would study the story about how the Indians showed the pilgrims how to plant corn and how the pilgrims when they had such a successful crop the following year, invited the Indians to a feast which became known as the first Thanksgiving. This study was usually accompanied by arts and crafts where we made Native American head dresses and pilgrims’ hats and put on a pageant about Thanksgiving for our families, complete with musical numbers and of course an occasional wave to grandma in the audience.
Catalina Island is 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. A Christian camp there, Campus by the Sea, is one of my very favorite places which I grew up visiting frequently. After seminary, I spent over a year living there on the beach in the small, isolated staff community, who are caretakers of a sacred space and hosts to many coming for spiritual retreat. Camp nurtured my gifts for hospitality and service, valuing simplicity and honoring God in mundane work, preparing me for monastic life.
During my year on staff, there was a major wildfire on Catalina. It spread to ridges surrounding our camp causing us to quickly evacuate our guests and ourselves by boat to Catalina’s town. We finally left the island late that night with the eery sight of flames amid the darkness near camp. We huddled together in prayer and song, fearing the loss of our sacred place and home.