Some of us have had life-threatening experiences that brought us to death’s door. Many such persons work at not losing the gratitude they felt when they escaped death. We speak of a child’s limited attention span, but we have to admit that that’s a characteristic we carry with us all our lives. When we lose the capacity to be grateful or let it whither, we are candidates for the disorder of consumerism, the need to keep adding more & more new things to our lives because we have lost the ability to appreciate what we already have. We can be like babies or little children, who grow tired of their toys and playthings and need to have them constantly replaced.
A Benedictine brother by the name of David Steindl-Rast is the author of a practical book entitled Gratefulness: the Heart of Prayer. I read it many years ago when I was having trouble praying. Prayer had become a chore for me, very mechanical, rote, too formal, too pietistic, so regulated that it had become downright boring and thoroughly unsatisfying. It seemed more like a religious duty than personal conversation with God. Brother David explained in his little masterpiece that prayer to God should be basically gratitude. In fact, he wrote, it can be entirely — only — gratitude. It is essentially our acknowledgement that we are creatures of the ultimate source of all being that we call God. We did not bring ourselves into being, nor can we prevent our inevitable deaths. We are creatures who have been made by a power, an intelligence, a love that is other than ourselves. Prayer is simply expressing our thanks to the Creative Spirit for the gift of life. After all, we need not have been, but we are.
Prayerful persons extend that thankfulness to take in every detail of their lives, especially all those other persons with whom they enjoy relationships of love and friendship. Hell, the theologians tell us, is not a distant, fiery place; it’s not a place at all. Hell is the condition of that human being who is totally alone, has no one to relate to. The spiritual person lives in unceasing gratitude for that, above all: that we are created to enjoy community, relationship. Jesus’ prayer, as we know from the Scriptures, was always formed around gratitude to the Creator, whom he called “Father.” He was very sensitive to that primary duty and privilege of the human being, to be grateful for his or her very existence. He could be terribly disappointed by the behavior of those who recognized their blessings yet were not thankful. We sensed that disappointment in his comments about the ten lepers who had been cured, although only one had the thoughtfulness to be grateful.
The word “Eucharist,” as you know, comes from the Greek word for gratitude — “thanksgiving,” giving thanks. What we do here at Sunday Mass is basically an act of communal gratitude. While each of us brings special reasons to make that kind of prayer, we mustn’t let it end there. Rather, what we do in Eucharistic liturgy should inspire us to live always in gratitude. It’s really so easy and natural; it makes life so much happier and more peaceful for ourselves and those whose lives are connected to our own.