Spirituality for Today – February 2009 – Volume 13, Issue 7

Gratitude is the Attitude

By Rev. Msgr. Frank Wissel

One cannot begin to understand the life of Christ without taking into account his profound sense of gratitude. There is a Gospel reading in which Jesus stood in the midst of 5,000 people. In his hands he held five little loaves of bread and two small dried fish.

As far as we know from reading the story, this was all the food that he had. This is how he handled it. He lifted his eyes to heaven and gave thanks. Then he broke the food, gave it to his disciples, and they in turn gave it to the people. What happened then, we are not told. But when the picnic was over, all of the people had eaten their fill and two full baskets were left over.

At the very least, that says something about the multiplying power of gratitude. The person with an ungrateful heart never has enough of anything. But when our lives are filled with thankfulness, we often discover that the little we have is more than enough.

I think it was the German philosopher, Nietzsche, who said, "We must learn to love our wounds." That must be life's most difficult lesson, but how important it is. If we zigzag through the years, being grateful for the good times and resentful of the bad times, we can never become whole and healthy-minded people.

A photo of an old red barn leaning to the right

Christ had learned that difficult lesson. On the night in which he was betrayed, he gave thanks and it was also on that same night that he established the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. We call it the Eucharist, which is the Greek word for "thank you."

In France they say, "Merci." In Italy they say, "Grazie." In modern Greece they say, "Eucharisto" – Eucharist, thank you.

That is why this sacrament is the climax of Christian worship. It is the church of Christ, standing once more before his cross and lifting our hearts in gratefulness for his sacrifice on our behalf. The ethical implications of such gratitude are immeasurable. Someone has called gratitude, "the mother of all virtues." That is a defensible proposition.

Let us say, there is a man who has no spark of gratitude anywhere in his heart. Instead, he is bitter and resentful. Why should he be grateful when he is utterly convinced that life has been totally unfair with him? Such a person, so long as he keeps that attitude, will never rise to any heights of moral and ethical achievement. He will not get much out of life nor give much to it.

Then there is another man who thinks living is just a matter of give and take. So much of this for so much of that. You work for what you get, and you get what you work for. As far as he can tell, he is just about breaking even.

Such a person will avoid the bitterness of the man who feels cheated. But he will probably be arrogant about his own achievements and cold and indifferent toward the needs of others. He will never scale the heights of ethical or moral achievements.

But finally, there is that person who lives out of a sense of indebtedness. He is convinced that no matter what he does, he could never pay back all that he owes. There have been times when he has felt cheated, and there were times when he seemed to be breaking even. But when all of life is taken into account, he is sure that he is way ahead. God, and people, and life have given him more than he ever deserved.

Strange as it may seem, our Lord was that kind of man. One can hardly imagine his feeling that way, for if ever there was a man who paid his own way and pulled his own load, it was him. If ever there was a man who had the right to resentment, it was the Lord. But he did not see it that way.

If we ever wanted to imitate him, we must cultivate that same spirit. And if we ever hope to be anything like him, we must be grateful for what we have. When we give of ourselves without counting the cost, one can be sure that it is out of the philosophy "gratitude is the attitude."