In our first and second sessions we worked through holy habits that you can broadly consider to be physical actions that prompt a mental and spiritual re-action.
There is an element of being able to fake it until you make it! By carrying out these actions you prompt and prod yourself towards God. The physical action of crossing yourself, of genuflecting, of walking… pushes you to think on God.
Of course, we understand that these physical actions can sometimes have little or no effect on our mental connection with God. But their continued use – even when you’re not ‘feeling it’ – will always orientate you towards God – what you do at that prompt or prod – is a different matter.
I have talked about how holy habits work to bring together the physical and mental engagement on our relationship with God. One, cannot be practised without the other.
Pilgrimage is a really good example of a holy habit that is designed to be both physical and mental. But just as with any habit it’s perfectly possible to engage with it on a mere physical level and not engage with the mental.
That is why I wanted to spend some time on a holy habit that is purely in our minds. I wanted to select a habit that took as much mental exercise and discipline as the physical ones do.
There are many to select, but one that I’ve been trying to practice over the last year or so is the Christian practice of gratitude.
It’s important that we don’t confuse gratitude with joy, or happiness – or indeed happiness with joy! No, gratitude is a spiritual discipline that has deep roots in scripture and in various Christian traditions.
From the very beginning of scripture we see praise and thanksgiving as good and proper things to do in reaction to and in relationship with our God.
The sacrificial system that God instigated for Israel’s atonement included scarifies of thanksgiving – indeed they were central in many aspects of that early relationship with God and they have never ceased to be so.
Let’s pull on that very ancient thread. It is a thread of worship and thanksgiving that goes back to the first few chapters of scripture. It’s baked into the language of our liturgy still.
“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right and just.”
“It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.”
… your liturgical language may vary! But the essence remains the same.
The priest says ‘we should give thanks’
The people reply ‘yes, that’s right’
The priest says, ‘yes – that’s right, it’s right and just – it’s our duty and our salvation. This is something that we should do – always and everywhere.’
But why are we / why should we be grateful? At the most basic, most simplistic level it’s because it’s our most natural response to God’s love.
The natural human response – the human created in God’s image – is to say thank you when we are loved. It’s a response that is baked into us by our creator and it’s a response that we see play out every single second of every single day.
It doesn’t matter how our lives play out as we get older, but in the moment of our earthly creation – as we emerge from our mothers – that moment of gratitude and thanks is so intermingled with the love of mother and child – that it is impossible to separate them.
As we grow older the attitude of gratitude becomes more and more torn from the reality of love and depending on our lived experiences we may or may not continue to connect love in its most basic form with gratitude.
And so, we also start to leave behind the gratitude that is due to God our Father as we become more concerned with the love of the world, rather than the love of Him who created us.
To use a modern phrase – gratitude is our love language to God our Father.
Thomas Merton – that great man who so understood the world around us and our relationship with God talks about gratitude in this way:
Gratitude is more than a mental exercise, more than a formula of words. We cannot be satisfied to make a mental note of things which God has done for us and then perfunctorily thank Him for favors received. To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us—and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is grace, for it brings with us immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder, and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference… Gratitude is therefore the heart of the Christian life.
So then, Gratitude is a practical lived out way of deepening our love of and understanding – as imperfect as that may be – of God’s love for us.
It is a way of living a life of exploration of God’s love – in a deliberate and meaningful way.
Let’s take a note from what Thomas Merton says:
[Gratitude] is constantly awakening to new wonder
The action of gratitude then is not to find things to be grateful for – but to recognise in your own life those gifts that have already been bestowed and to be grateful for them. These are not great big, amazing things – they are the simple things before us.
The practice of gratitude starts with our creation. We are here. We have been knit together in our mother wombs by a God who loves us.
Just take a moment to dwell on that.
We have been knit together, we breath, our lungs fill with air, our chests heave, we feel our created bodies – and we should be grateful. We start from there.
When we start to focus on those simple, seemingly unimportant things – it reconnects us with that basic and complete gratitude and love that exists in the moment of our birth.
When you start there, every moment becomes an exploration of our created being and creation around us, and each new discovery creates a moment – an opportunity – to be grateful.
And that’s why gratitude is a holy habit.
It teaches that each moment should be an exploration of those gifts that God has given us, and in that moment that sense of gratitude that puts us mentally in a right relationship with God.
If you recall, I talked about that right relationship with God a good deal in the first talk. How crossing yourself slows you down, how genuflecting brings you up short, how pausing in front of a statue before you light a candle and pray – puts you in the right place to be open to hearing God and to being open for God to see you more fully and completely.
Practicing gratitude makes that happen in every moment of your life. It trains your brain to focusing on the gifts of God in front of you, rather than the drag or evil trying to bring you down.
When you start this practice, you want to go deeper, you want to open yourself to more of Gods world around you. You’re like a child who has discovered how an imagination works. It’s a wonder and it’s a joy!
What a brilliant way to live your life. Full of the wonder and joy of the created world around you, of your created being inside you, and more able to push away the work of the enemy – of cynicism, of being cast-down and looking for things to be angry or upset about.
The path of gratitude leads to the light, the path of ungratefulness or worse – of ignorance of the love of God in the world around you – leads to dark places.
How can this play out in your daily life?
What did I ask you to do each morning and each evening in my first talk? Can you remember? What holy habit did I extol you to practice?
Cross yourself when you wake and say the Our Father. Cross yourself when you go to sleep and say the Our Father.
When you wake, you wake to a new day – and that day is unlike any other because it is a gift.
It doesn’t matter what is going on in your life, how bad things are – when you first awake you have a moment where you can decide to face the world in gratitude for the gift of this day from God, or you can decide to face the world in a way that is ungrateful or ignorant of the gift freely offered.
I put it this way around because gratitude is far more about the way that you interact with the world and gifts offered in it, than sitting down at the end of the day and trying to create a list of things that you should – because you OUGHT to – be grateful for.
Being grateful before you face the world is a right mental place to experience God around you. Sitting and drawing up a list is like a schoolboy being forced to write a list of things that made him happy over the summer holidays.
Those moments in the holidays are already gone – those gifts have passed – and so the gratitude is already spent – it’s not gratitude that is now being experienced but more a happy memory, or nostalgia – and whilst these may have other positive mental health benefits – they are not about a right relationship with God and living as your part in that created gift here and now.
If you do nothing else in your life but develop this sense of gratitude for those things right in front of you, then you will have achieved a great and wonderful relationship with God.
If you can face each day as the unique and wonderful gift that it is, if you can face the day as if it is your first – but now with all the knowledge of your life to date – or if you can face the day as your last in this earthly life before facing God… then you’re doing okay.
I have told you of the perfect opportunity each morning when you wake to put yourself in the right place with God. To cross yourself and offer prayer – physical holy habits that prompt you to be with God as you wake – now, you also have an ability to start your day in an attitude or the practice of gratitude.
Start the day with God right in front of you as if you were a child receiving the most amazing gift.
Then, and only then – let your feet fall to the floor and face the day – face the gift that God has given you.
See how this small holy habit, this mental focus, this mental lens on the world around you sits you squarely at the feet of God – as child sits and adores their mother and father.
See how this small holy habit impacts your daily life with others. How this small holy habit spills out into the world around you. How this small holy habit altars the way in which you experience pain, how you experience hardship, how you experience sorrow.
How this small holy habit opens up the possibility of endless gifts of grace from God our Father.