The art of giving thanks

If you were to ask me what I associate with the word “thanksgiving,” the first image that would pop into my mind is one that involved a delicious meal, family, pies, a crackling fire, fall leaves and darkening days. If you put “thanksgiving” into Google images or Pinterest, you are greeted with visions of script quotes that read “give thanks” surrounded by beautiful autumnal designs. It seems as though November has been marked as the month to give thanks. In reality, this practice should not and cannot be limited to a day or a month; rather, it should be integrated into our daily thoughts, actions and prayers so that “in all circumstances [we] give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes 5:18).

The art of returning to thanks, of expressing gratitude to our God, is an obligation echoed throughout Scripture and one that all great saints have emphasized. “No duty is more urgent,” writes St. Ambrose, “than that of returning thanks.” In fact, one of my graduate professors, Dr. John C. Cavadini, echoed this sentiment, noting that learning to say “thank you” — truly and authentically — is perhaps one of the greatest prayers we will ever say.

During the Eucharistic prayer, the priest prays, “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.” We respond, “it is right and just.” The priest continues, “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, creator of the world and source of all life.” Every week we listen and respond to these words. They are so ingrained in our minds that we run the risk of participating in a rote and reflective manner. Do we comprehend that our salvation is dependent upon giving thanks always, everywhere to God the Father, our creator and source of all life; to God the Son, our savior and redeemer; and to God the Holy Spirit, our advocate and consoler who has revealed the Word to us in every age?

Are we someone who only offers thanksgiving when the harvest is plentiful? Or are we able to notice the blessings God bestows on us when our cup has run dry, when we are in the darkness of the valley? To offer gratitude then compels us to move beyond the circumstances we find ourselves in and recognize that everything is grace. This simple act permeates every aspect of our lives: our vision is refined; we begin to gaze upon the world, ourselves, and others with the eyes of God; and we are transformed. Indeed, “every joy and suffering, every event and need can become the matter for thanksgiving which, sharing in that of Christ, should fill one’s whole life” (CCC, No. 2648).

Three ways to practice the art of gratitude

1. Keep a gratitude journal.

Take a moment to write down at least three positive, beautiful moments from each day. At the end of a long day, it’s easy to focus on what went wrong, the ways you failed, the ways you were hurt, the disappointments. But we must remember the little things — a kind word, a conversation with a friend, the beautiful sunset, a moment you succeeded at work, a load of laundry folded and put away, a prayer that was answered. On your hardest days, you can look back at your lists as a way to remind yourself of the many ways God has been, and always will be, faithful to you.

2. Observe creation.

Creation gives testimony to the creator. “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have set in place; What is man that You think of him” (Psalm 8:3-4). When I look at a sunrise or sunset, when I see a clear starry night, fog rolling in over the lake over a cool morning, or the waves of the ocean crashing down upon the shores, I cannot help but think of how awesome, powerful and wondrous our God is. To exist among his creations is truly a gift.

3. Begin and end each day with “thank you.”

Truthfully, my prayers of thanksgiving are often feeble — often said before a meal or serving as my introduction to a litany of petitions. But sometimes, I remember to wake up and let my only prayer be: “Thank you God for the gift of this new day. I offer you my prayers, works, joys and sufferings. May all that I do glorify your name. Open my eyes to see you in everything and in everyone.” That simple prayer frames my outlook for the rest of the day, making it easy to say thank you come nightfall.

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