Practicing Gratitude at St. Catherine's
Historically, philosophers and theologians have suggested that gratitude is one of the most critical human emotions for the betterment of society. Religious and spiritual thinkers have documented over time, that gratitude is a crucial aspect of religious and spiritual life. In modern times, decades of social science research confirms that when people are grateful, they are more likely to serve others, to give back to their communities, to be altruistic and to cultivate a lifelong practice of generosity.
But how does one begin to “practice” gratitude-- the art of being grateful, which is seemingly such an inherent and instinctive way of being? It often seems that we are either born with gratitude --ultimately blessed with a giving and generous spirit--or, quite simply, we are not. In this way, the notion of “practicing gratitude” seems almost paradoxical.
During the season of Easter 2018, the St. Catherine’s community joined the Stewardship 365 Team in a conscious effort to “practice” gratitude. For five weeks, with sharpies and brightly colored post-it notes in hand, our parish celebrated Sundays of gratitude in a joyful and exuberant way. On corresponding colored squares of paper, we answered questions each week that challenged us to reflect deeply upon the question of gratitude: how and where it reveals itself in our lives--not only within the walls of St. Catherine’s but within our families, our communities, at work and at play. We reflected upon the gifts of nature, the blessings of St. Catherine’s ministries and its staff, and the work we are called to do as a Body of Christ.
Each week, more personal reflections were added to the growing glass walls of the Narthex (the site of our Gratitude installation) until the entire space was transformed into a bright and beautiful mosaic of dazzling color, a patchwork of hope and thanksgiving. By the close of the Easter season, the wall contained hundreds of personal reflections on grace and gratitude. There were prayers of thanks for the many ministries of St. Catherine’s and its conveners, especially for our talented Choirs. There were countless prayers for peace and healing in response to recent national and international violence (“I See God in the seeds of hope being sown after the Detroit shootings”). And there were messages of love, redemption and thanks for the natural world (“Thanks Be to God for the return of the hyacinths to my yard,”). There were funny messages too: (“Thank God for coffee!”). Lastly, there were love letters written to family members and dozens of beautifully hand drawn pictures, many from our youngest, and very talented parishioners (“Thank You...You are the best Mommy”).
As my children and I stood around our kitchen island last Sunday afternoon, sifting through the squares of bright paper and taking turns reading them aloud, we each had similar responses. It struck me as implausible, (at least it seemed that way, given that my 2 children and I had such mirrored reactions), to read these prayers of thanks and messages of generosity aloud without connecting personally to them and, by extension—feeling a rush of gratitude, ourselves.
One parishioner’s recent Sunday dinner with her grandchildren, immediately brought to mind my own two parents, and although both have had serious illnesses this year, I was flooded with thanks that I was given the chance to celebrate Easter with them both this year— feeling especially grateful that my mother was well enough for us to prepare some of our favorite Easter recipes together. Forrest read a reflection on a St. Cat’s Youth’s recent trip to Florida, and immediately recounted a very special family beach trip we took to Destin last fall...So it went on, until we were no longer reading parish reflections...we were sharing stories of our own gratitude. Interestingly, this did not feel self-indulgent or myopic. It felt as if we were speaking to God through our own personal family “Post It” prayer. If it were translated, it would go something like this: “Thank You, Lord, for everything that you do to make our lives so exceptional, so bright and so beautiful, even when we don’t expect it and certainly when we don’t deserve it, which is—most days.”
The feelings of gratitude and gratefulness that washed over us in the kitchen lingered on for a good part of the afternoon and evening, and as I packed up the hundreds of post-it notes, I was again struck with the feeling that something special had happened. I’m not sure whether this shift in the kitchen occurred in our hearts, or in our minds, (or both) but I’m sure what was taking place was that we were “practicing gratitude”.
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.