What does saying thank you do for us? According to John Cuyler, quite a lot. “Life is a gift,” Cuyler writes, “All of life and everything in it is a gift. Every element, every tree, every rock, every smile, every tear, every person, is given in order to tell us something about God. Gratitude is the living response that keeps God and others in proper perspective. Ingratitude is a refusal to receive life as it was intended and the result is the eclipse of God.” Being thankful is thus “a principal element of the soul,” and by practicing gratitude we mirror the act of divine love that sustains the three persons of the Trinity in relationship with one another. We live in community because God is community, Cuyler argues, and these should be communities of thanksgiving and praise: “God’s intent was for us to live gratuitously by celebrating our dependence on him and our interdependence with each other. In community one gives, the other receives and without gratitude there is no receiving but only taking. … Gratitude, like gravity, keeps us grounded in relation to the world around us.”
Cuyler grounds his understanding of gratitude in the revelation of the glory of God. “The glory of God must be seen and recognized for this is the purpose for which God has displayed his essence in the universe,” he writes. “Glory evokes gratitude.” And a proper understanding of God’s glory puts everything in perspective, placing us back in an appropriate relationship with God and with other people. What matters when God gives us gifts, especially gifts like the Eucharist, is that God is revealing Himself in these gifts. So when we don’t say thank you we are refusing to acknowledge God in His personality and glory. We thank God for bringing us out of darkness and into His glorious light; and we remember His acts of deliverance. In remembrance (anamnesis) and gratitude we find fresh power that enables us to endure and to run the race to the end. Like Janus, gratitude faces two directions at once. It looks to the past as a way of looking to the future – our hope of eternal glory is secured by what Christ has already done for us on the cross.
Gratitude should lay at the heart of the Christian life. But most of the time it doesn’t, because it has been crowded out by consumerism, entitlement, and competition. We destroy community and relationships when we think only of ourselves, and as we stop thinking about others we lose sight of the thankfulness that binds us together in love. “Consumerism focuses on what we can get rather that what we are called to give,” Cuyler says. “It creates a stratification of persons which, at times, views others not in terms of hospitality and self-giving, but as things.” Gratitude is thus the complete opposite of consumerism, “taking what little we have and turning it into more.” Turning once again the Genesis 1-3, Cuyler explains that consumerism is an unraveling of what we were made to be. Expounding an eco-theology before it became popular, he argues that “living out our vocation as gardeners who reflect the nature of God as we cultivate life through our work is a process intended to celebrate our solidarity with God and our sisters and brothers. This celebration of solidarity is the essence of gratitude, the whole person response that welcomes the bond linking the giver with the receiver. The communal constitution of our vocation also indicates that the over-arching purpose of our life-work is not acquisition and possessing, but giving. We are to create, not in order to store up grain in our barns but to feed the cattle, we are called to create for the enhancement of our environment.” Expanding on this gardening metaphor later in the book, Cuyler states that “The center to which gratitude leads is like the core of an apple, filled with seeds. Seeds that free us from competing with others for our identity. Seeds that free us from the anxiety that someone else is going to take our spot in the world or our piece of pie. Seeds that free us to enjoy, rejoice over and promote the gifts and successes of others. Seeds that free us from the need to be God, allowing us to accept our shortcomings. And seeds that grow us into partners with God and the rest of humanity.”
Theologians imagine, rightly, that we should be so spontaneously overwhelmed at the extravagance of God’s goodness to us that we frequently burst into songs of praise and thanksgiving every day of our lives. Cuyler has been around long enough to know that few people live this way, and he recognizes that gratitude has to be cultivated, not assumed. Rejecting easy conversions or cheap grace, Cuyler admits that “a religious life attained by ordinary means is nothing more than sentiment,” and he challenges us that any Christianity worth having is one that we have to work at. Spiritual disciplines do not make us any holier or better people, but they do “create a space for God to enter,” and He is only too eager to take advantage of our cooperation and willingness. Cuyler recommends what he calls the “classical disciplines” of “confession, fasting, meditation, prayer, service, simplicity, solitude and study” as ways that we can turn closer to God and cultivate gratitude. In a very useful appendix, Cuyler explores how to use personal practices like listing things we are thankful for as well, keeping a journal, and more difficult practices like the Ignatian examen. He argues that as these sorts of disciplines turn our eyes upon Jesus, they also draw us closer together and enrich the communities in and through which we walk with God.