Of Gratitude and Leaves

In both secular and religious circles “gratitude” is sort of a buzzword.  It’s supposed to make you happier.  Less stressed.  Physically healthier.  Like the snake oil of the emotional world: Be grateful, and life is all rainbows and unicorns!  For sure I’m happier when I’m aware of my blessings; no need to argue with that.  Probably my blood pressure and sleep are better, too.

Beyond its trendiness, gratitude is a virtue I want to cultivate in my children.  A couple years ago for Thanksgiving, I made a construction paper tree trunk and a bunch of fall colored leaves.  Then my girls and I brainstormed all the things for which they were grateful.  Everything on their grateful list got its own leaf taped to the trunk.

The first few leaves were easy, but as we got to the end of our leaf pile, the girls had to think harder.  Deeper.  It was fun to watch their wheels spinning as they tried to fill up all the blank leaves.

Gratitude

What new thoughts are there to be had about gratitude, though?  Gratitude = good.  Everyone should make a grateful list.  The end.  Have a nice day.

The Gospel reading from Matthew 5: 1-12A for the All Saints Day Mass got me thinking that maybe it isn’t quite so simple.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward will be great in heaven.”

In his homily, our priest mentioned that these are the characteristics of saints.

Snap.

Actually, I’m most grateful when my life is the opposite of all these things.

I’m grateful my husband is not dead, and I don’t have to mourn.
I’m grateful when I’m in control and things are going well.
I’m grateful when my life is not bothered by suffering
I’m grateful when it people like me, or even praise me.

Seems as though just like my girls and their Thanksgiving craft, I need to think harder about how I’m filling up my leaves.

My gratitude needs to include more than just possessions and the positive circumstances I’m in.  Sure, it’s easy to be grateful for the parking space that’s right there when I need it, a call from an old friend, or an unexpected bonus check.  That sort of gratitude will probably bring all the psychological benefits the internet hums about this time of year.  Especially when it inspires me to go out and be more generous and kind to others.

However, if the stuff of saints is The Beatitudes, then my grateful list is sorely lacking anything that goes beyond avoiding suffering.  Comfortable shoes.  Modern medicine.  Air conditioning.  Could I be grateful without all those things? What does authentic, spiritual gratitude look like?  Am I grateful for the moments in life that bring me into The Beatitudes?

I am not grateful for my daughter’s chronic illness that causes her immense pain.
I am not grateful for the miscarriages we’ve endured.
I am not grateful for the times when finances are tight and we have to make tough choices.
I am not grateful when relationships strain because I hold tight to my morals.

Sure, I’ve gotten past those bumps by clinging to the notion that there’s some bigger plan.  But I haven’t really been grateful for the bumps in the moment.  They hurt.  They’re bumps.

Hmmm.  Turns out I am not particularly grateful for opportunities to practice humility or mercy or peace.  Can’t I just be grateful for my family and clean water and chocolate?!?!

Nope.  That’s not good enough.  It’s a start, this acknowledgement of how my life has been blessed.  It’s a start to ensuring I’m using those blessings in a way to build up God’s kingdom and care for others.

It’s a start, not the bottom line of authentic spiritual gratitude.

“The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for what He is sending us every day in His goodness.” –St. Gianna Beretta Molla

If today holds clean water and chocolate, by all means we should praise the Lord for it and work to bring clean water to those who don’t have it.  But if today holds a car accident and a letter from the IRS, we need to figure out how to praise the Lord for that, too.

Looking at that list of Beatitudes, I obviously have a long way to go before I’m saint material.  Exercising those gratitude muscles differently than I have been is going to take some doing.  Good thing there will be plenty of occasions to practice.

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