Beliefnet
Reprinted with permission from "Living Faith, Day by Day," by Debra K. Farrington, from Penguin Putnam, Inc.

"As soon as everything that is done at table is finished, all rise as the abbot does so, and the whole community says along with the servers and the cellerer, "Thanks be to God!"
--The Rule of Master

I worked with an author once who taught me a great deal about being grateful. The whole time we worked together he was dying from a genetic disease that had already killed all his siblings. He had lived a good deal longer than many other people with his disease and I was fortunate to know him, even if it was only for the last nine months of his life. I don't believe Bill ever ended a conversation with me without thanking me for publishing his book.

About two weeks before he died, Bill called me and spent a whole hour telling me how blessed his life had been and how grateful he was for everything he had been given. I listened to him tell me about how much he valued his wife, the time he has spent in seminary, and all the people he had met there, how thankful he was for seeing his book in print before he died, and much more.

I have never forgotten the power of hearing someone, who had suffered with a fatal disease his entire short life, talk about how blessed he had been, and how grateful he was to God for all he had.

It was our last conversation and I knew it when we talked. Bill was calling to say good-bye and he needed someone to listen to him tell his story once again before dying. I think I was in tears the entire hour that he talked. I know I cried for some time after getting off the phone with him. But I have never forgotten the power of hearing someone who had suffered with a fatal disease his entire short life talk about how blessed he had been, and how grateful he was to God for all he had.

Perhaps you have childhood memories like mine, of grown-ups trying to get you to eat what was on your plate because there were starving children somewhere else in the world. The basic message was that we were to be grateful for what we had in comparison to others. While that is certainly true, Bill's farewell conversation taught me that comparing myself to others in order to feel gratitude is not terribly helpful. From my perspective, Bill had many reasons to be far less than pleased with the kind of life he had inherited, but he saw it differently. He had argued with God and finally made peace with his disease, and when he did so, he discovered a loving God, rather than a vengeful one, and Bill's response to that was gratitude.

Thankfulness is not something that can be faked very successfully. I was not particularly grateful for the brussel sprouts on my plate when I was six, even though I had them and a child in India did not. Still, we can begin to practice the discipline of noticing people and things for which we are truly grateful.

When I made a major move across the country some years ago I was often overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness and homesickness. So I developed the practice of taking a few moments each evening to recall people or events of that day that I was thankful for, even if that was just for my much-coveted first cup of coffee that morning. I didn't make anything up, and didn't offer thanks for things I wasn't grateful for. It was hard to do at first, and it didn't decrease my sadness right away. My sadness was the stronger emotion and commanded more of my attention than joy did. But over time it helped me shift my focus to the gifts of my new life, instead of the losses from my old one.

Most of us have more blessings than we count on a given day. These can include the places we live, the people we know, our jobs, a favorite nightshirt, a pet, vanilla ice cream covered with hot fudge on a cold winter's night, and a thousand other joys in our lives. It is so much easier, however, to focus on what is wrong than on what we have to be grateful for, and it takes effort to refocus ourselves.

The monks who followed The Rule of the Master, quoted at the beginning of the essay, made meals one of the things for which they expressed gratitude. The whole community began and ended the meal with the phrase 'Thanks be to God," plus other prayers. The rule even tells us that a pulley system delivered the first basket of bread to the abbot immediately after the prayers, 'to give the impression that the provisions of God's workmen are coming down from heaven.' What a sight that must have been! Perhaps we would all be better off if we had such a visible daily reminder of where our gifts in life actually come from.

Practice
Commit yourself to noticing your blessings, and saying thank you to God and to others for them. Try some of the following suggestions or add your own:

  • Take the time to write thank-you notes in response to gifts you've received, events you've enjoyed, or anything else that deserves thanks.
  • Say thank you to other people as often as possible.
  • Say grace before and after meals in thankfulness for the food that sustains your body.
  • Give God a quick thank you throughout the day for anything that give you joy.
  • Take a daily inventory of the blessings of that particular day. If you wish, keep a written list of these and see if it grows longer over time.
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