With gratitude and thanks in all circumstances

By Ruth Powers
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. –1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
During the month of November, we in the United States traditionally focus on the virtue of gratitude, looking back to that feast celebrated by the Pilgrims as they gave thanks for a good harvest after the first terrible winter they spent in the New World. However, as Catholics and as Christians, we are called to make gratitude one of the central virtues in our lives. We are, first, called to gratitude by the Scriptures. Both the Old and the New Testament speak of the importance of giving thanks to God in all things and all circumstances. The psalms contain many beautiful hymns of thankfulness and praise, that God is the source of all things and that when we recognize this truth, we are moved to thanksgiving. St. Paul teaches about the virtue of Christian thankfulness in many of his letters even when the communities to whom he writes are undergoing trials. Gratitude is also a theme in the writings and teachings of too many saints to enumerate.

Ruth Powers

Often, though, we are more likely to forget that all we have we owe to God, and to become distracted by the concerns of our daily lives and forget to give God the thanks He deserves for all He gives to us. We are much more likely to complain about what is going wrong in our lives than to focus on the gifts we have been given. True gratitude (and not mere politeness) flows out of humility. It begins with the realization that we lack something that has been freely supplied by another because at that time we could not get or do it for ourselves.
As people of faith, we also know that God is the ultimate source of “life, the universe and everything” and so must be the ultimate object of our gratitude. It’s easy to think of doing this when all is well, but St. Paul reminds us that we are to give thanks in all circumstances, not just the good ones, because we never know what part even seemingly bad or uncomfortable things may have in God’s plan for us.
There is a passage in Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place where she and her sister give thanks for the fleas that infest the bunkhouse where they are living in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Later they realize that the guards have not searched their bunks and found their contraband Bibles because of the fleas.
At the end of his life, St. Francis of Assisi was blind and in constant pain; yet in these seemingly terrible circumstances, he wrote his most famous prayer, which was a hymn of thanks: “Praise be my Lord for Brother Sun…, Sister Moon and the stars…, Sister Water …, Brother Fire…, our Sister Mother Earth…, Praise and bless my Lord and give him thanks.” We are reminded to cultivate gratitude even when it seems things are going badly for us.
The other issue that cultivating the virtue of gratitude will help to combat is the culture of entitlement that seems to permeate our society. Many people seem to feel that the world owes them preferential treatment for no other reason than an inflated vision of their own importance. Gratitude teaches us that our own labors, important as they may be, have their source in gifts given to us by God and thus should be sources of humility and gratitude toward the one who loves us enough to give us those gifts. We run into immeasurable trouble when we begin to give ourselves credit for what we have rather than giving thanks to the one who is the true source of all.
Although November may be the time culturally when we think about giving thanks, gratitude needs to be nurtured and expressed daily. A very wise retreat master once challenged a group of retreatants to this meditation: “Think about what your life would be like if you woke up one morning and all you had left in your life was what you had thanked God for the day before.” We would do well to meditate on this frequently.

(Ruth Powers is the program coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)