By ANDY OTTO, Commentary | Published November 13, 2020
Sometimes we treat saying “thank you” as just a social norm, but it’s so much more. Recently, there has been an explosion of gratitude apps and journals—ways to help people be more intentionally aware of the blessedness in their lives. This is tapping into something Christianity has always had at its heart.
The word gratitude comes from Latin word gratus, which means thankful or pleasing. The Latin root is also where we get the word grace, which is an unearned gift from God. St. Paul wrote, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:4). See how he connects grace and gratitude? Consider how our prayer of thanks before meals is called “Grace.”
Through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, we come to realize that everything we do, say, or pray is a response to the gift of God’s love—God’s grace. Our response is never forced, but always a free choice. Why do we love God? Because we have experienced God’s love. In fact, this is the very reason for our worship and praise of God: it is a love-response borne out of gratitude. Ignatius knew that there was no way to make a repayment for God’s goodness, nor does God expect it (otherwise it would make grace something to earn or merit). Our only return of that love can be a gratitude that naturally wells up within our hearts when our eyes are opened to God’s abundant generosity.
This is why Ignatius places gratitude at the beginning of the Daily Examen, a prayerful review of the past day. By seeing the unearned gifts first, my heart opens to make a fuller response to God’s activity in my day. It’s no mistake that formal Christian prayer is generally structured so that thanksgiving is first. “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God,” the priest says at Mass, leading into the Eucharistic Prayer. Do we orient our lives this way? Are we gratitude-first people?
One gratitude practice I have observed consistently came from not sleeping well. Many nights I find myself awake with pending projects and to-do lists circulating in my head, or other worrying thoughts, as if they were annoying bahh-ing sheep I compulsively count. So, I’ve taken to naming three things I was grateful for that day. It’s easy to focus on the bad things in our lives, the what-ifs, the should-haves. More often than not, it’s negativity that keeps us up at night. Gratitude becomes a natural antidote to negativity. I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to hold gratitude and negativity in your heart at the same time. Irving Berlin’s song now holds a whole new relevance for me: “When I’m worried and I can’t sleep I count my blessings instead of sheep. And I fall asleep counting my blessings.”
At the end of the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius presents a meditation on the love of God where he invites us to consider the many gifts God pours out upon us endlessly. He images this as a flowing fountain of love: We are filled to the brim with God’s love and grace. Intentional days like Thanksgiving are fitting symbols of God’s abundant grace. In normal times, we may gather with extended family and share in a lavish feast, alluding to biblical images of the kingdom of heaven. The bread we break around our family table is a gift, the people we share that bread with are gifts. What is our love-response to these gifts from God? Gratitude.
Andy Otto, M.A., is a spiritual director, retreat director at Ignatius House, Pastoral Associate for Faith Formation at St. Thomas More Church in Decatur, and author of “God Moments: Unexpected Encounters in the Ordinary.”