Gratitude and Prayer

We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the holy ones because of the hope reserved for you in heaven. Of this you have already heard through the word of truth, the Gospel, that has come to you. Just as in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing, so also among you, from the day you heard it and came to know the grace of God in truth.

Colossians 1: 3-6

 

The opening of the Letter to the Colossians is filled with joy, hope, and gratitude. It is impossible to read it without feeling gratitude for those in our lives in whom we have seen the love and grace of the truth of the Gospel. There is a depth of gratitude that is evoked in us when we recognize the deeper life that we share with others and the fruit of that life in what Pope Francis calls “the joy of the gospel.”

Mother Teresa has said that “The fruit of silence is prayer.” As we read the heartfelt expression of the author of Colossians, we are reminded that prayer is also the fruit and the expression of gratitude. There are many reasons that we pray for another. It may be concern for them and their welfare or it may be out of joy for their lives and their presence on earth with us. It may be that they might come to forgive us some hurt we have done them, or that they may succeed at something that is important to them. It may be that worry, sadness or grief not overtake them. Often, for those closest to us, we may pray that they may appreciate their own worth and realize in the world their unique call and mission. Every one of these “causes” of prayer for another, however, is grounded in our deep sense of gratitude for their very being and presence with us.

It is something of a theological bedrock that faith is a gift. As the opening of Colossians makes clear, we cannot speak of the gift of faith without also recognizing the gifts of hope and love that accompany it. If, in fact, our theological understanding of faith, hope, and love as gift is correct, how do these gifts form the human heart? How is our life in its common, ordinary, and unspectacular flow given shape and form by these gifts? It is by the foundational disposition of gratitude. Once we realize that everything and everyone is pure gift to us, and this includes our own life as well, then our hearts begin to overflow with gratitude to the Giver of those gifts. This is faith.

For all the different forms that prayer takes, it is always ultimately an expression of gratitude. Prayer is the fruit of silence, as Mother Teresa says, because when the silence grows deep we recognize that life is being given to us. When our minds that are so busy with our own concerns and projects begin to still, we recognize that our life is not our own but rather flows from its Source. We are dependent  on God for our life in this moment, but that also means that this moment of life is sheer gift to us. As we are reminded in Psalm 139:14, “I thank you that I am fearfully wonderfully made.”

Yet, it is not only I who am fearfully and wonderfully made but so are all others. We speak much of love in the Christian tradition. Yet, as the years of life pass, it can be more and more difficult to understand precisely what we mean by “love”. We know that feelings of affinity and attraction are temporary. Thus, we often distinguish forms of love. It sometimes helps to speak of charity, as a mode of love which is based on our capacity to will in action the good of others. Yet, our willing must be informed by the dispositions of our hearts. When Jesus shows in action and in parable the love to which we are called, it is far more than merely duty. So, how do we grow in love and how does our will become informed by love?

There are times of encounter with another when, as today’s reading expresses, we feel overwhelmed with gratitude for the life of the other. We recognize at work in them the faith, hope, and love that is their call, their identification with the Lord. We see in them, both when they fulfill and fail their call, the gift to the world, and so to us, that is their very being. There arises in us a spontaneous prayer of gratitude to God for them. This experience and prayer evokes the recognition in gratitude of the gift of our own lives.

This was the experience of the early Church. As a community, they realized, through this mutual prayer and thanksgiving, the presence of the Risen Lord. They loved one another in Christ, not by some kind of fantastic replacement of the person before them with an image of Jesus, but rather in the gratitude and thanksgiving for the life of Jesus manifest in the very flesh and blood of the unique person before them. In their gratitude for each other they came to know the love of God.

Our “love-will” is not formed by the harshness of dutifulness but rather by a self-abandoning gratitude. Gratitude does not come so easily to us, however. When our emphasis is on ourselves and on our own responsibilities and duties, our own successes and failures, we are not in a position to recognize the gifts we are being given. This is the connection between silence and prayer, between silence and gratitude. That which is owed to us is not a gift. As long as we live the illusion that life is what we make it, we shall never learn the way of love, we shall never truly begin to pray. It is in the practice of “not-doing” that we realize the gift that is life.

Our task in life is to gratefully receive the gift in all its forms and to tenderly care for it. Earth, “our common home,” is in crisis because we fail to care for it. This failing is due, in large part, to our failure to recognize in gratitude the gift that it is to us. As a gift, it is not ours to dominate but rather to tend to. Our tradition calls on us to rest one day in seven so that we can be receptive to reality as the gift it is to us rather than to seek to manipulate and dominate it as we do the other six days. When we experience the gift and the gratitude it evokes in us, our hearts will spontaneously care for and tend to the world, the other persons in it, and ourselves. When we truly love another we long to serve the other’s full realization. We see our place in relationship to them as a servant and helper of the work God is doing in them. It is gratitude that makes us aware of the presence of the Giver of all good gifts and a prayerful servant of the world.

And contemplating this with thanksgiving, we ought to pray for the deed which is now being done, that is that God may rule us and guide us to God’s glory in this life, and bring us to God’s bliss; and therefore God has done everything. So God means us to see that God does it and to pray for it. For the one is not enough, for if we pray and do not see that God does it, it makes us depressed and doubting; and this is not to God’s glory. And if we see that God does it and do not pray, we do not do our duty. And it cannot be so, that is to say, it is not so in God’s sight. But to see that God does it, and at the same time to pray, in this way is God worshipped and we are helped. It is our Lord’s will that we pray for everything which God has ordained to do, either in particular or in general. And the joy and the bliss that this is to God, and the thanks and the honor that we shall have for it, this is beyond all understanding of all creatures in this life, as I see it.

Julian of Norwich, Showings, The Forty-Second Chapter

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