By Dr. Tom Neal
“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.” — Meister Eckhart
I came across this quote a few years ago, and was stopped in my tracks by the simplicity of its vision. Gratitude, which is the acknowledgement of being the beneficiary of an unearned gift, possesses life-changing power.
My grandmother used to always say to her grandkids, “Most of the problems today in the world come from a lack of gratitude. Everyone feels entitled, so no one is grateful.” When she would say this to me as a teen, I thought of it as simplistic and trite. But as I’ve grown older, its truth has become overwhelmingly clear and my wife and I work hard to pass this truth on to our children.
We all bear “debts of gratitude” to others – our parents, our teachers, and the nearly limitless procession of people who have, in ways great and small, gone beyond what is strictly required in order to make our lives better; to make us better human beings. Those of us who bear this debt of gratitude can only rightly repay it, as the saying goes, by “paying it forward” to benefit others who, like ourselves, can make no strict claims on our love and patience, generosity and time.
As people of faith, we add to our “litany of gratitude” God Himself, who created us, sustains us and redeems us. He is owed an infinite debt of thanksgiving. But how can we repay such a debt? As Catholics, we believe it is above all in the Holy Eucharist, which unites us with Christ’s supreme act of thanksgiving, that we return to God the Father fitting thanksgiving by offering the first fruits of lives lived in sacrificial service to God and neighbor. In other words, the eucharistic gratitude we offer God in the Mass must arise above all from our daily labor of loving our neighbor. St. Catherine of Siena, giving voice to God the Father, expresses this powerfully in her Dialogue:
I ask you to love me with the same love with which I love you. But for me you cannot do this, for I loved you without being loved. Whatever love you have for me you owe me, so you love me not gratuitously but out of duty, while I love you not out of duty but gratuitously. So you cannot give me the kind of love I ask of you. This is why I have put you among your neighbors: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me — that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me.
I once met a woman in Iowa who had served as a nurse for over thirty years. She boasted to me that she had never missed a day of work in her whole career. When I marveled that someone could remain so healthy, she said: “I’ve always believed that my health was a gift from God so that I could care for the sick, because if I’m sick they won’t have me to take care of them.” I thought, now that’s the sign of a saint – someone who sees her health not as a sign of God’s favor for her, but as a sign of God’s favor for others. Yes, saints are the most grateful people in the world and, consequently, the most giving people in the world.
“What do you have that you have not received? But if you have received it, why are you boasting as if you did not receive it?” — 1 Cor. 4:7
Dr. Tom Neal is originally from Rhode Island. He has lived over the years in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Florida, Iowa and is now proud to be a NOLA Catholic! His wife and four children live in Metairie, LA and they love being called to be saints among Saints. Dr. Tom Neal presently serves as Academic Dean and Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana and has a particular passion for exposing the unlimited potential of theology to offer the faithful a deeper sharing in the mind and heart of Jesus Christ.