German mystic Meister Eckhart once said, “If the only prayer you said your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
Gratitude has that kind of power, not just in prayer, but in the most ordinary moments of our lives. When we are thankful, grateful and appreciative of what we have— even for the things that don’t necessarily warrant a special thank-you prayer—we tend to be more generous, loving, patient and kind toward others.
Gratitude shifts our focus away from our own complaints and problems. If we are busy noticing the blessings in our lives—even something as simple as a beautiful sunrise coming up over the highway as we drive to work, or our family gathered around the dinner table after a long day—we are less likely to wallow in self-pity.
That doesn’t mean developing an attitude of gratitude is easy. It requires action and determination to look for those moments of grace, even when they are hidden among the thorns of disappointment. Sometimes, we’re too worn out to even get started.
Those who count their blessings in concrete ways—written in gratitude journals or on slips of paper collected in a gratitude jar or box, even on Facebook for all the world to see—do seem to give off a sense of joy, one that ripples outward, as if every blessing they name is a pebble tossed into our collective consciousness. Try it for yourself in the days leading to Thanksgiving and see if and how it changes you for the better.
A gratitude practice doesn’t have to be time consuming, expensive or difficult. It can be as simple as opening up a cheap spiral notebook and jotting down, on a daily basis, the things that bring a smile to your face, from the ridiculous (your cat batting a crumpled piece of paper around the house) to the sublime (a good diagnosis from the doctor). Even the smallest nods toward gratitude remind us that the goodness we experience comes from somewhere outside ourselves. When it comes to gratitude, nothing is out of bounds and no one is too old or young for this practice.
My daughter, Chiara, 11, is the latest in our household to take up gratitude journaling, racking up an impressive number of blessings in a short time and asking me every night if I’ve taken the time to write a few things in my own journal. I originally suggested she start the practice when she was going through an illness that was getting her down, but she liked the gratitude ritual so much that she has stuck with it, which has only served to remind me that there really is something to this practice. It’s worth the few minutes before bed (or whenever works for you) to stop and ponder your blessings.
For those of us who often find ourselves stuck in a moment of sadness, anger or despair, there’s no reason to lose hope or think that we, too, can’t move ourselves back toward gratitude and joy with a little prayerful attention and intention. Rather than waiting for the start of the new calendar year to take up this new and powerful habit, why not start now, during the season of Thanksgiving, the start of our new Church year and the beginning of the Advent season?
Pope Francis, when he was in Mexico earlier this year, said, “Thanksgiving is something which is born and grows among a people capable of remembering. It is rooted in the past, and through good and bad times, it shapes the present.”
Gratitude shapes the present. When you think you can’t change a situation in your life, remember that you can change the way you react to a situation. Before you go to sleep tonight, think of three blessings in your life, write them down, give thanks and watch a new way of life take shape.
This column originally appeared in the Nov. 10, 2016, issue of Catholic New York.