“Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” (Luke 17:17–18)
The readings this Sunday are a lesson in gratitude. What is our reaction to the gifts of God? Are we taking them for granted? Do we even recognize them?
We’ve all heard the expression count your blessings. But how often have you honestly sat down and done so? Once I received the task to do just that as my penance in the sacrament of confession. The priest pointed out that I had obviously taken the time to examine my conscience and count my sins, and now it was time to examine my life and count my blessings.
As I sat in the chapel, I started with the big, obvious blessings. My parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. Then my health and the health of my family. My friends, my job, my home. Being born Catholic and the grace of perseverance in the Faith. After working my way through the big list, I moved to smaller things, and then even to the blessings of that morning. Waking up in good health, making it to Mass and receiving Jesus in the Eucharist, being able to go to Confession. My car starting and safe travels to Mass. My breakfast that waited for me at the bagel shop, the people who made it for me… I finally looked at my watch and realized I needed to get to work. But there were so many blessings I hadn’t named and for which I hadn’t thanked God yet… where could I stop?
Everything I have at this moment is a complete gift from God. My life, my breath, my existence is possible because he loves me and freely gives me that love. I’ve done nothing to deserve it. If we all lived with this reality in front of our eyes, don’t you think we would behave a little differently? Wouldn’t our actions, our conversations, and our relationships be anointed with a graciousness and a humility that is often so lacking in today’s world? Like all the virtues, gratitude needs to be cultivated.
There have been several studies on the way gratitude changes our attitude and even rewires our brain. It can relieve stress and anxiety and even increase dopamine production. Yet it is so often precisely when we need these effects that the crosses and sufferings of life leave us feeling less than grateful.
That is why we must cultivate the habit of gratitude. If you begin to live gratitude everyday, noticing the blessings (even the smallest one) and thanking God for them, it will be far easier to continue to give thanks even when the heavy crosses come. Gratitude isn’t just the way we feel. It’s something we choose. It’s an act. Strive to choose gratitude.
We need to practice saying thank you. Our mothers probably taught us to write thank you notes when we receive presents as children. But do we still do it? If not, begin responding to gifts with a prompt little thank you note. It doesn’t have to be eloquent or fancy – just heartfelt. What about thank you notes for non-tangible gifts? Whether it’s a visit from a friend or a favor from a coworker, make an effort to show your gratitude, even if it’s not something Miss Manners would proscribe you need to do.
The more we say thank you, even just verbally, the more we’ll begin to recognize the gifts in our lives. I know a husband who does the dishes every night for his wife. Now it’s just expected. But what if she made an effort to verbally thank him for washing the dishes? It’s something that I’m sure we all could begin to take for granted, but if she goes out of her way to thank him, she’ll remember that his service is a gift of love to her.
Likewise, his act of washing the dishes is itself a “thank you” for cooking dinner. But what if he goes out of his way to verbally thank her for dinner? It’s hard to believe a relationship can’t be helped by these little acts of gratitude, and practicing them will help cultivate the virtue in our lives so that we can see acts of love everywhere.
Before you go to sleep tonight, stop and thank God for ten blessings in your life. They may be big or small, obvious or hidden. Thank him. Then tomorrow, make the effort to thank the people who cross your path. Thank your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends for what they do for you or who they are for you. Say thank you to your coworkers, the person who bags your groceries, your mailman, your waiter. Thank the priest who celebrated Mass or forgave your sins!
Practice saying thank you for the expected things, the mundane things, and the everyday things. The more we do this, the more we’ll begin to see the gifts even when they’re disguised. Think of how that would change your life. It would change the world! Maybe today you have many things for which to be thankful, but tomorrow the gifts may be harder to see. Cultivate the gift of gratitude in your life, so that regardless of what comes into your life, you will be grateful for it.