This week in the United States, we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that invites us to pause and consider those things for which we are grateful. The faces of family and friends, scenes from important life events, the look and feel of treasured items, opportunities and privileges and innate skills — these are just a few things that may bubble up to the forefront of our mind.
Cultivating a disposition of gratitude is an important spiritual practice. It’s also foundational to Ignatian spirituality, most readily experienced in the daily examen. We begin this prayer in thanksgiving, calling to mind the many gifts God has freely given us.
I wonder, though, if gratitude feels out of place. After all, we look out at our world and see war, suffering, violence and death. We see the hopes and dreams of even young children shattered and stolen. We see the increasing decay of our common home. We see the rotten fruits of loneliness and fear and hatred. Is it right, then, to begin our prayer in gratitude? Or should we start somewhere else?
Rather than listing those things for which we are grateful, should we instead list those things that worry us? That give us pause? That require immediate attention and action?
No, he insisted. Tempting as it may be, gratitude is still where we must begin.
But why? I wondered.
When we begin with a problem — and there are always many to choose from — we necessarily limit our thinking. We curb our imagination. We descend into a rabbit hole that quickly becomes overwhelming, depressing, stifling. We wonder if there’s any hope at all, and we make hasty decisions from a place of desolation.
If we begin instead with gratitude, recognizing that we are both gift and gifted, our horizon expands. We gaze upon the many good things we have — from physical things to unique skills and experiences to a web of relationships — and revel in God’s goodness. Rather than staring solely at problems and spiraling, we look at problems through the lens of our giftedness.
We each have strengths. We each have people in our lives. We each have resources. And yes, we each can see clearly the problems of our world.
This past weekend at Mass we heard the parable of the talents. A wealthy individual gives those in his service each hefty sums of money; two of them invest those sums while the third buries it in the ground. Those who gain interest, gain favor; the one who wasted what was given is cast aside.
It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on in the parable. We each have been given gifts. It is the work of our vocation to discern how best to use those gifts for the good of God’s creation. When we do, we realize God’s dream — and that dream grows. When we don’t, we act against God’s dream, allowing our own unique light to go dark.
I think it’s fitting we celebrate Thanksgiving with this parable in mind. I think it’s even more fitting that this coming weekend we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King.
A key moment in the Spiritual Exercises is when we are invited to meditate on the Call of Christ. Jesus beckons us forward, invites us to collaborate in the work of the Gospel. But he does so by challenging us to consider those unique gifts that God has given us. Those gifts that only we can put at the disposal of Christ’s mission.
God does not will the many ills that plague our world. God mourns them. At the same time, God invites us to step forward, to respond to Christ’s call through the very vocation we have been gifted.
So, is gratitude appropriate in a world stained by so much darkness? Absolutely. We continue to be grateful for Christ working within us — and for the many gifts we have been given so that we can work in Christ.
Eric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, Small Wonders Magazine and more. His next book, My Life with the Jedi: The Spirituality of Star Wars, an exploration of Star Wars through the lens of Ignatian spirituality, is due out in February 2024 from Loyola Press. Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat.