A couple years ago, I led a men’s retreat out of state. It was a great group. One-hundred fifty or so men of all ages gathered in the mountains for three days of faith, prayer, and brotherhood.
On the final night of the retreat, I encouraged the men to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for one of the blessings in their life. It began quite silent—as was expected with a group of men—but once the floodgates opened, I witnessed a growing strength and courage in every answer offered.
One overjoyed man thanked God for a part-time job he’d just gotten (after months of being unemployed).
One penitent soul thanked God for the gift of his mercy after attending confession earlier that day for the first time in two decades.
One older man uttered gratitude for the fact that he could still walk on his own.
One man, fighting back tears, thanked God for his wife of forty-six years who had just passed away a month earlier.
Each prayer of gratitude to the Lord left me floored. The humility and sincerity in the room was palpable—a welcome reminder of how many blessings we so often take for granted. Just as I thought the moment could not go any deeper, a voice bellowed from the back of the room.
“I want to thank God for my cancer.”
The room fell silent. The man then continued, “I mean it sincerely. I figure that everything God gives us or allows is for our own good … to make us holier. So, I do, I thank God for my cancer and all the lessons I’m learning from it.”
I sat speechless. The man, Henry, who shared this bombshell with us had caught my attention earlier in the retreat. He always had a smile on his face and a kind word to share. Henry did nothing to alert anyone to the battle that obviously raged within him.
Did I have enough faith to thank God not only for the blessings in my life, but for the storms? Was I a strong enough man to praise the God of the universe for those blessings which—on the surface—did not appear as blessings, at all? I think back often to that night of prayer in my own daily examination of conscience. Do I have an attitude of gratitude regardless of the spiritual “season” I find myself in? At what point do I just stop and thank God for the seemingly forgotten blessings? When was the last time I praised and thanked God while toiling in the spiritual deserts of my faith journey?
Henry has since gone home to heaven, but his example lives on. You can usually tell by a person’s demeanor if they awoke that morning counting their blessings or cursing their problems. As Christians, our lives ought to make it easier for others to believe in God through our witness, and to trust in his goodness and mercy.
Thanksgiving acts as a welcome “wake-up call” for many of us, when we pause our busy schedules long enough to actually utter thanks for those people and things we so often forget to acknowledge. What if this year, however, we let gratitude really permeate our soul on a deeper level?
What if this year we decided to adopt a more grateful attitude across the board? What if we made it a point, daily, to affirm someone? What if we wrote a letter or placed a call to someone once a week who we love but fail to tell often enough?
And why stop there? The Creator uses all of creation to point us back toward him. We just need to be more aware, realizing that God’s presence to us is the true gift. What if—instead of waiting for holidays—we just randomly began living life to the fullest, right now?
Order pizza and eat it off of the fine china. Wake up extra early and welcome the sunrise with a cup of coffee and a prayer of thanksgiving. Take your spouse on a surprise date. Get off the couch and dance with your kids or grandkids. Sing at the top of your lungs in the shower. Go for a walk and accompany the sun as it sets. Give the waiter or waitress a more generous tip and affirm their service. Invite a neighbor with you to Christmas Mass. Don’t just stop and smell the roses today … buy them!
If you are reading this, it means God isn’t done with you yet. There are souls yet to be touched by him through you. The grateful heart is a heart wiling to serve, to change, and to love even in the midst of personal suffering. Go ahead and take a chance. Henry would be proud of you.