The 13th-century German philosopher Meister Eckhart said, "If the only prayer you say in your whole life is 'Thank you,' it will suffice."
Remembering God's Mercy Through Jesus' Call to Gratitude
One year, at our Catholic school's Thanksgiving Mass, my fellow students and I acted out the story of the 10 lepers. Before all the cooking, laughing, eating, and football gazing commenced, everyone stopped to hear Jesus wonder how nine recipients of a miraculous healing could fail to take even a moment of their newly blessed lives to thank God. To Americans, gratitude is indeed the order of the day every fourth Thursday in November. To Christians, however, it has to have even a higher place.
The 13th-century German philosopher Meister Eckhart said, "If the only prayer you say in your whole life is 'Thank you,' it will suffice." Of course, only God can judge our prayers, and Jesus' model, the Lord's Prayer, includes more than words of thanksgiving. But I think Eckhart's insistence on the importance of thankfulness is not very far off the mark. After all, the Church recalls Jesus' pure and complete offering to the Father by celebrating the Eucharist, a word that means "thanksgiving."
Every year around the beginning or middle of November, I ask my middle school students to keep a gratitude journal. Every day for five days, they write about three things or people they are grateful for. Some have told me that writing those gratitude journals for five days had actually made them happier. They hadn't realized how many gifts they had until they were invited to list them. Just today, while the students worked on their writing in class, a girl breathed a sigh of relief when I assured her that writing about more than three reasons for gratitude in one entry was not a problem.
In fact, it's exactly the point. I want my kids to have the experience I do when I write in my gratitude journal each morning: to start listing and gradually notice that everything that was wound up inside has relaxed into a soft warm peace; and sometimes, to start listing and not be able to stop. It's more than a feel-good activity. It's essential if we want to have a clear perspective. We can't really know the world or our own lives if we don't saturate our minds with examples of the mercies of God. There are more than enough of them to keep us bent over gratitude journals forever. If we can't see that reality, we can't live the healthy lives God wants for us.
And we Catholics have an especially profound reason to practice constant gratitude: the Eucharist. Every day the God of heaven and earth offers Himself to us, letting His Flesh and Spirit linger with ours. Certainly, no one should have to mark a special day on the calendar to remind us to thank Him with our words, thoughts and lives. As our holy Mother Church teaches us, "It is right to give Him thanks and praise."
In fact, when we forget to be grateful, Jesus becomes concerned for our wellbeing. Seeing the gratitude of the lone Samaritan, the Lord looks around for the rest of the lepers He has cured and asks, "Where are the other nine?" All 10 had cried, "'Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!'" and all 10 had been "made clean," yet only "this foreigner" had returned to "give praise to God." And only he hears these words from Christ: "'Your faith has made you well'" (Lk 17: 17-19).
I don't think Jesus means that the Samaritan's faith healed his leprosy, for all the lepers were healed, and none of the others showed the Samaritan's faith. Rather, I think Jesus means that the man's faith has made him healthy in spirit. After all, what an amazing miracle it must have been for this outcast — shunned as a Samaritan and as a leper — to find that the all-powerful God loved him enough to do for him what no human power could have done. He would never forget that love. It would hold him up when he faced temptations to doubt his own value or God's faithfulness.
The other nine, however, did not stop to reflect on God's great generosity to them (as Mary did: her gratitude list, the Magnificat, was the gospel at Thanksgiving Mass this year), so they might have easily forgotten His mercy and fallen into spiritual lethargy or even despair. Jesus' question mourns this forgetfulness. He longs for the other nine to come back to Him; if they don't, they are choosing to stumble through life blind to the light of His mercy. As our Lord tells St. Faustina, "Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy ... Even the devils glorify My Justice but do not believe in My Goodness" (Diary, 300). To believe in that goodness and trust in that mercy, we must first notice them. That's what gratitude is.
Although Jesus on the cross has already given perfect thanks to God on our behalf, our Father wants us to have a grateful heart brimming with trust in His love. We cannot truly notice our many gifts without eventually noticing the Giver, and once we do, we naturally wonder why He has showered us with so much goodness. There is only one conceivable answer: because He loves us; because His Body, His Blood, and the whole universe do not seem to Him gifts too extravagant for us; because He honestly believes we are worth living for, waiting for, calling for, and dying for.
Marian Tascio is a writer and English teacher who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.