We believers are called to be grateful in all circumstances. That’s sometimes easier said than done, especially when we are going through hard times. But our faith calls us to look for the blessings. People who look for blessings in their lives tend to be more grateful, positive people. Their faith also tends to be stronger, because they see how God has helped them not just in good times, but perhaps especially in tough times. I always say that our God doesn’t just wave a magic wand and make all our problems go away, but that he never leaves us alone in the midst of those problems. Today’s Liturgy of the Word provides the basis for that belief.
Today’s readings speak to the sadness of leprosy, which in Biblical times included basically any skin disease. People suffering from these maladies were shunned, partially because it was believed they could spread the disease easily, but also because contact with any such person made one ritually impure, and unable to worship or be part of the community. So lepers were basically excommunicated, and had to fend for themselves. Naaman in our first reading, and the ten lepers in our Gospel, had to contend with these ailments every single day. So it’s not surprising that Naaman came to the prophet Elisha, and the ten to Jesus, looking for healing, as they had perhaps looked for healing just about everywhere.
None of these eleven people were given any flashy cure. No one waved that magic wand that made them look and feel one hundred percent better. They were told to do some things that didn’t seem all that miraculous: prior to this reading, Naaman was instructed to bathe seven times in the Jordan River, which he felt was an inferior body of water than he was used to. The ten lepers were told to go show themselves to the priests. So it’s right that they all felt these procedures were highly suspect. Yet, in the ordinary-ness of their activity, they were in fact cured. Then they were left to see the blessing and offer thanks.
Like the lepers in today’s Gospel, we have been healed of lots of things. We have found ourselves healed when:
- A person who loves us tells us a hard truth we need to hear about ourselves.
- We experience, in a long relationship, opportunities for growth in generosity, forgiveness, patience and humor.
- Parenting teaches us to give our lives for another in frequent doses of our time, energies, hopes and tears.
- We suffer a broken relationship, go for counseling, and the guidance we receive gives us hope for our future.
- We seek help for an addiction and the group members offer us wisdom, support and helping hands when we fall, and support us “one day at a time.”
- We suffer the death of a loved one and family and friends are there to grieve with us and eventually there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Not every gift of our lives is something that at first glance seems like a good thing. Sometimes the fact that God has helped us through a bad situation is grace enough to celebrate. Back when I was in my second year of seminary, just before Christmas, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. We got her through the surgery and started on chemotherapy and eventually managed so celebrate Christmas. Just after I returned to the seminary in January, my father was diagnosed with kidney cancer. I have to tell you, I didn’t know how to pray any more at that point. I didn’t have words to say to God. But some of my brother seminarians came to my room one night and sheepishly offered to pray over me. They had no idea how important that offer was to me. I invited them in and we talked, and they prayed over me. From that point on, I was able to pray again, for my parents and for myself, because they had been God’s grace to me. I’ve never stopped being thankful for that – not for the situation, but for the grace and for my friends, both of which were a gift from God.
I want to offer you two gratitude tools, and I hope that you’ll use one of them in your prayer life. The first is the idea of a “gratitude journal.” Some of you may already be doing this. Basically, every time you find something to be grateful for, you make a note of it in a journal. It doesn’t have to be a long story, just a few notes about what you’re grateful for. And the idea is that you go back every so often and look at the entries to see how you have been blessed, and the many ways that God has been working in your life. There’s no way you can not be more grateful and more joyful when you do that.
The second tool is a tool that I am borrowing and slightly modifying from St. Ignatius of Loyola. It’s called the “Evening Examen,” and St. Ignatius has required all of his Jesuit and Jesuit-influenced followers to pray it every evening. The way I do it is to ask myself three questions at the end of every day. It takes maybe five minutes, maybe longer; it depends on the day. But If you do it every day faithfully, you will again see the grace of God at work in you and I believe you’ll find more joy in your relationship with God. Those three questions are:
1. What are the blessings and graces I have received today? (Then give thanks for them.)
2. What are the things I have said or done today that have not been a source of grace to others or to myself? (Then ask God’s forgiveness, maybe say an act of contrition.)
3. In what way or ways has God been trying to get me to move, or what has God been trying to do in me these days? (Then ask for whatever grace you need to move in that direction.)
So just three things: How have I been blessed? How have I sinned? What has God been trying to do in me? That prayer has been a source of growth for me as a disciple, and I hope you’ll try it and keep it in your prayer toolbox for the future.
Let us not be a people who leave the giving of thanks to others, like the Jewish lepers left the Samaritan to do in today’s Gospel. May we instead be a people marked by an attitude of gratitude, giving thanks for the many ways that God sustains us and blesses us, looking for those blessings every single day. Then we can be a people who, when instructed, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” can truly respond: “It is right and just!”