Cicero said: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” If gratitude doesn’t come easily to you, consider gratitude’s offspring. And consider a few spiritual exercises that make us more grateful.
Time for Thanksgiving. My sense is the holiday often tilts more toward gluttony than gratitude. This is where Cicero might be of service. As the parent of all virtues, what are gratitude’s offspring? David DeSteno has discovered a few.
DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston. He cites empirical studies indicating people who feel grateful are more likely to help others who request assistance. They’re more likely to divide their business profits in a more egalitarian way. They’re more loyal to friends, even at cost to themselves. They’re less materialistic. Grateful people even exercise more.
These sure sound like virtues. And their cumulative effect sure sounds like shalom, or human flourishing. So, what sort of practices make us more grateful? My wife Kathy introduced our family to one a while back.
After the meal, we pass around a small clay pot containing corn kernels. Each family member takes three. Every time the pot comes around, you place a kernel in the pot and tell everyone one thing you’re grateful for from the past year. The pot passes three times.
Our kids loved this little exercise when they were little. As they grew up, it felt corny (pun intended). Then our kids married. They married great spouses, but I sensed this exercise at first felt a little corny to them. Now they enjoy it (at least we think they do). Try it.
There are two more exercises I recommend. Practicing the Eucharist as well as examen.
Eucharist comes from the Greek eucharistesas, “giving thanks.” But I recommend practicing communion as the Apostle Paul told the church in Corinth to practice it. That church was notorious for ad-libbing communion (I Cor. 11:17-34). Ad-lib means as you please. The Corinthians took communion as they pleased, likely using whatever words they pleased. Paul didn’t ad-lib. He passed on what he had received from the Lord (I Cor. 11:23). He repeated, recited, to the Corinthians what Jesus had said to him:
“…on the night he was betrayed, he took bread, and when he had given thanks (eucharistesas), he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (I Cor. 11:24-26).
Few contemporary churches repeat what Jesus told Paul to repeat. They ad-lib communion, using whatever words they please. Omissions invariably abound, including “and when he had given thanks.” This is why older church traditions recite Paul’s words (and, by extension, Jesus’) word-for-word, week after week, just as they recite the Lord’s Prayer every week. When the disciples asked, How do we pray? Jesus replied, Pray this way. Do communion this way. Jesus is God. The Bible is God’s Word. Jesus is pleased to have his words repeated week after week, rather than us using whatever words we please.
Here’s another exercise: examen. It comes from Ignatian spirituality. This is where, at the end of the day, we reflect on and evaluate (examine) our thoughts and conduct. The aim is to be more aware of God’s presence in our midst throughout the day (Psalm 139) and be grateful. Examen is ending the day examining rather than being entertained on your iPad. Try it.
God is a big fan of gratitude, not because he needs it but we do. I hope these thoughts enrich your Thanksgiving celebration.