I do not believe it is possible to live a thriving spiritual life without gratitude. By gratitude I mean a particular orientation toward life, a pervasive spirit that saturates our thinking and compels our doing.
Gratitude is a way of life that flows naturally from the awareness that all of life is gift, that all we have and are is due to divine grace.
A life of gratitude, therefore, should not be equated with expressions of thanksgiving that all too often arise from feelings of superiority, deservedness, and the delusional belief that we are self-made.
One might recall the barrage of opposition launched at President Obama when he pointed out that no one has succeeded in this life without some help.
Some of you may recall the table-grace offered by Jimmy Stewart’s character in the movie, Shenandoah. He prayed:
Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same for food we’re about to eat.
A prayer of thanksgiving? Sort of. A prayer naturally flowing out of a life of gratitude? Definitely not. No one would question that a healthy sense of independence is necessary for a healthy life, but too many people want to believe that all their good fortune is their own doing.
Some people are blind to a fundamental truth of our common humanity, namely, we need each other. We are all interdependent and interconnected, and this is true not just between human beings, but with all creation.
A grace-filled life would issue forth a much different prayer than the one prayed by Jimmy Stewart’s character. It would reflect an understanding that the health and physical ability to work the land, the growth of the seeds, the rain and sunshine, the fertility of the soil, and everything else—it’s all gift.
How much do we have as a result of opportunities that many are not given? How much is ours simply by the random turn of the wheel of life? Did we determine our mental and physical capacities wired into our genetic code? Did we pick our family of origin and have any control over our early childhood nurturing (or lack thereof)? Did we pick the time and place of our birth or the economic, political, religious, and social conditions of our environment?
Prayers of thanksgiving can easily be misinformed, misdirected, and miss the meaning of life as God intended. Like the religious leader who prayed in the parable told by Jesus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people . . . I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” He felt he was one of God’s chosen. As Jesus made clear in the story, the spirit of thanksgiving that filled his heart was not of God.
A life of gratitude, on the other hand, sees our solidarity and union with all things. It accepts the responsibility of being our sister’s and brother’s keeper, as well as keeping and preserving our planet. We all belong to earth’s household and God wants all of his/her daughters and sons to enjoy a flourishing life.
Here is a better prayer to pray not just for Thanksgiving, but for every day of the year:
Giver of all good gifts, you give us space and time
This new day, in this place, is your gift.
Make me live gratefully.
This day is opportunity
To receive your blessing in a thousand forms.
And to bless.
To listen to your word in all that I hear,
And to respond in obedience of heart.
To drink deeply from your life,
And to make others come alive.
By radiant smile, by cheerful answer,
And by a secret blessing.
(Brother David Steindl-Rast)