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Column: Cultivate a grateful heart with litany of thanksgiving

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by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

The pastor of the parish in St. Louis, where I served as a transitional deacon, offered me two pieces of very wise and practical advice as I prepared for ordination to the priesthood: 1) always be faithful visiting the sick in their homes and in the hospital; and 2) always tell people thanks for their efforts to help and support the parish.

He counseled that if a priest did those two things, his people would overlook and be tolerant of his limitations and weaknesses.

One of the first things that parents attempt to teach their children is to say thank you when someone is nice to them or gives them a gift. Expressing gratitude is just good manners. It is not only good advice to a parish priest to always express appreciation, but recognizing the kindness, the help or the hard work of others is a practice that strengthens marriages, is essential for good parenting, helps to make friends, and strengthens morale of teammates, co-workers and employees.

For the Christian, gratitude is our natural state. If we are true disciples of Jesus Christ, then we understand the profound truth in the words found in many of the prefaces to the eucharistic prayer for Mass: “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you (God) thanks.”

Once we realize that everything we have is God’s gift, then it is clear that it is indeed right and just to give the Lord thanks. Our life, our health, our family, our friends, our talents, our educational and job opportunities, all of the material blessings we enjoy, ultimately all come from the hand of God.

Just as parents help their children understand that there is a natural obligation — politeness and common courtesy demand that we thank others for their kindness — so the person of faith realizes we have a duty, a responsibility, to express thanksgiving to the One from whom all blessings flow. Failing to give God thanks reveals both a failure to understand who God is and a failure to know our true identity. Understood from this perspective, our salvation does indeed depend upon our awareness of our need to give God thanks.

There is really no context in which we do not have reason to give God thanks. We see this most clearly reflected in the lives of many of the saints, who even in prison, with the imminent threat of execution, continued to be grateful to God. One of my favorite examples of such a grateful heart is found in St. Thomas More’s letter from prison to Margaret, his daughter. Margaret had urged her father to lie, by taking the oath acknowledging Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church in England, in order to save his life for the sake of his family.

Thomas More wrote in response: “Although I know well, Margaret, that because of my past wickedness I deserve to be abandoned by God, I cannot but trust in his merciful goodness. His grace has strengthened me until now and made me content to lose goods, land, and life as well, rather than swear against my conscience.

“I will not mistrust him, Meg, though I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. . . . And finally, Margaret, I know well that without my fault he will not let me be lost. I shall, therefore, with good hope commit myself wholly to him. . . . And, therefore, my own good daughter, do not let your mind be troubled over anything that shall happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatever that be, however bad it may seem, it shall indeed be best.”

Just as a grateful heart can give us peace and even joy in the direst of circumstances, so ingratitude can rob us of happiness even in the midst of great abundance. It is the ungrateful heart that is the root of so much unhappiness and despair in the world.

When we lose sight of God’s great goodness and our many blessings, we become vulnerable to envy, jealousy, ambition, lust and consumerism. The ungrateful heart becomes so aware of God’s blessings to others that jealousy and envy deprive us of the ability to enjoy the many gifts and graces in our own lives.

Our failure to enjoy the abundance that God has already provided makes us vulnerable to the erroneous thinking that happiness can be found by amassing more and more things, which in fact make us feel more and more empty. Similarly, our ingratitude can motivate us to satiate our desire for happiness by a compulsion to seek more and more intense pleasures — e.g. sex, drugs, gambling — that, when the fleeting “highs” vanish, leave us addicted and despairing. Or our failure to recognize God’s gifts can allow ourselves to be driven by ambitions, hoping that achieving some measure of worldly success or recognition will fill the hole in our hearts that God alone can satisfy.

It is wise to pray for and to cultivate a grateful heart. One of the ways by which we can help foster the disposition to give thanks always and everywhere is to identify God’s blessings in our lives. I encourage you to make your own litany of thanksgiving a part of your daily prayer. List all the people, the circumstances, the abilities, the talents, the opportunities, the experiences and the things that God has given to you. After reciting each item on your list, just simply pray: “Thank you, Lord.” Praying your personal litany of thanksgiving is a great antidote to envy, jealousy, ambition, consumerism, and a disordered seeking of pleasure.

A grateful heart can give us the same Spirit that enabled St. Paul to write to the Philippians while imprisoned and in danger of execution: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! . . . The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4: 4-7).

If you would like to reflect more thoroughly on this topic, I encourage you to participate in the 7 p.m. First Thursday Lecture on Dec. 1, given by Michael Scherschligt at Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park.

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Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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