Every evening, we thank God for the graces that He has bestowed upon us. “What thanks shall I give Thee, O my God, for all the benefits that I have received from Thee? Thou hast thought of me from all eternity; Thou hast made me out of nothing; Thou hast given Thy life to redeem me.”
In this prayer, we recall first our existence in the eternal thought of God, then our natural existence, and finally the Incarnation and Redemption of the Son of God. But it is the unfortunate effect of our familiarity with these mysteries that they have lost much of their appeal for us. They no longer have the power to penetrate the thick skin of our indifference. Chesterton finely remarks that to reap the full benefit of religious truths, we must always consider them for the first time. Does not the Church make the priest every morning at Mass ask God to renew his youth: to give him ever new eyes and a new heart to discover and fully to appreciate the riches of the altar?
The best way to understand the Incarnation and the Redemption is to see them “as something new, with the unaffected astonishment of a child, with the naïve realism and objectivity of innocence.” Our seeing them thus will not make them to be a reality — they are real already — but it will make them a reality for us, something that we have to take into account. We shall thus discover all the wonders involved therein and be in the proper state of mind in regard to them; that is, an attitude of respect, unparalleled admiration, and a gratitude to which we cannot but give expression.
Speaking of creation, we endeavored to give some idea or at least some sensation of the infinite distance that separates God from man. Let us recall this once more. Think of God infinitely and eternally self-sufficing in that “mobile immovability” of which Magdalen de Pazzi speaks, and in the fullness of His being, having no need of creatures; ever identical with Himself and never changing; yet ever in activity and eternally begetting. He is all. Why should He create? And yet a day came when time began; God created.
Think once again that this earth is but one of a myriad of worlds, that man, however noble, is but one of God’s creatures and in His sight is as nothing. And for this little scrap of nothing, and sinful nothing at that, God will become man — in the words of St. Paul, will empty him-self. It seems a dream. And yet it is reality; it is the wisest act of infinite Wisdom. The Word became flesh. What has become flesh is the Wisdom of the Father, uncreated Intelligence. Jesus, to use the phrase of St. Augustine, is the “Word abridged,” as it were, re-edited in a form that we can understand. The Infinite became a babe in swaddling clothes. Heaven descended to a manger.
What I have just written seems to be not only foolish, but blasphemous. Such abasement is impossible; God is God and must ever remain so. How can we speak of a God made man, a God confined for nine months within the womb of a woman, a God lying upon a bed of straw in a stable, a God playing childish games with the children of Nazareth, and later on carrying a yoke on His shoulders for Joseph the carpenter? Impossible.
And yet it is true. The Word became flesh, but without ceasing to be the Word. The Word became like one of us. That man in the Arab burnous passing by, a man like ourselves, that is He. “Behold the Lamb of God!” He is in very truth a son of men. His village, His parents, His habits, His friends — all these are known. If you approach Him, He will talk to you. “You do not believe? Then come near and listen to me. You can do as those who call themselves my disciples, and come and pass a whole day with me.”
What unfathomable truths are these! And yet I do not seem to think so. It seems quite natural to me to associate Jesus with the manger. Natural for a God to be in a manger! If it were not that contact with trivialities had dulled our appreciation of profound truths, our hearts would be singing a constant Magnificat. That we are unable to admire such a mystery shows the poverty of our minds Nothing makes one realize the nothingness of man’s nature so much as this inability to understand, this cold indifference before the most sublime of all mysteries, before this divinely poetic and loving conception: the great God whom the heavens cannot contain resting upon the lap of His mother; so small that a little girl might carry him in her arms just as she does one of her little brothers when she finds him crying in the cradle.
But besides the mystery of the manger, there is also the mystery of the Cross; after the Incarnation, the Redemption. God became man; but He became a man of sorrows. The divine child rested in the arms of His Mother; the man of thirty-three rested upon the arms of the Cross.
Here, again, familiarity with the cross prevents our seeing it. Or perhaps it is that we have never looked at it enough to be able to understand it. There is the cross that is an article of furniture for the drawing-room — would that it adorned every drawing-room! — and there is the Cross that forms the subject of meditation. In other words, the cross may be nothing more for us than a thing; prayer makes it a person: the Crucified. The crucifix may be merely two pieces of wood in the form of a cross with a figure carved upon it more or less artistically, but in any case, rigid and dead; or it may be wood that for us is still drenched with warm blood, and on it a living God who is dying for our salvation.
The imagination, the mind and the heart are, if possible, more amazed at this than at the mystery of the manger. This man, lying prostrate in a fever of agony, moaning and writhing under the olive-trees of Gethsemane, is the Son of God. This man torn with scourges, whom Pilate brings forth on the balcony of the Antonia, His shoulders covered with a purple rag and His brows crowned with thorns, is the Son of God. This condemned man whose arms the executioners are tugging in order to drive nails into His hands, is the Son of God. The executioners raise the Cross slowly as they would a ladder; the body that hangs painfully upon it, supported by ropes that are half soaked with blood, is the body of the Son of God.
Impossible! I cannot believe it! But what is it that the people and the centurions are saying? “Truly this was the Son of God.” But you see that this cannot be true. Either you are lying, or else you are grossly mistaken and your blasphemy is worse than the most hateful blasphemies of His executioners.
But what am I saying? It is I who blaspheme. Lord, Lord have pity on me. It is not that I doubt. No, not for a moment has Your divinity ceased to be invincibly evident tome. This we believe, and so do all those who read these lines.
Why is it, then, that the Cross means so little in our lives? How is it that the wood of the cross does not fall upon us and crush us? Why do not these beams cast a salutary shadow upon our vain hopes and aspirations? How could a God be crucified for love of us and yet the memory of the Crucified not pursue us ever with its poignant love? How is it that such a love receives so little love in return; that even when we are on our knees before the crucifix, the sight of Christ on the Cross helps us so little in our prayer? Could our Savior have done more to win our hearts? Man remains unmindful, indifferent, unloving. And yet it is man, this dull, unheeding man, that God has willed to remember: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” It has been God’s delight to dwell with him: “My delight is to be with the children of men.”
May I say to You, O my Lord, that You have mistaken us strangely. We are not what You thought us to be. We are not worth Your sacrificing Yourself for us. Many insult You; the great majority do not know You. And as for the good, You alone know, my Lord, how little they love You, how little gratitude they show. Have pity on them all, O Lord, and upon me, who, for so long, have been ungrateful.
God pardons us; but that does not authorize us to abstain from thanksgiving in the future. At Bonn, a surgeon, surrounded by his pupils, was about to perform an operation on a farm-laborer suffering from cancer. The eminent doctor warned the poor man that, at the very best, he must reconcile himself to the prospect of losing his speech. “If,” he said, “you have any desire to express, express it now.
Remember that this is the last word you will utter in your life. After the operation, you will be dumb.” Everyone waited expectantly. The peasant bowed his head, and his lips uttered these words: “Praised be Jesus Christ!”
In certain Catholic districts this exclamation is used as a salutation or greeting. One says, “Praised be Jesus Christ!” and the other answers, “Forever.” If we but cultivated meditation upon our Savior Jesus Christ, remembering that He delivered Himself up for us to death, even the death of the Cross, then surely the most elementary ideas of gratitude would make us sometimes pronounce this formula. In colleges, seminaries, and convents the well-known but beautiful phrase Benedicamus Domino is used for calling in the morning — “Let us bless the Lord”; and the answer is given: Deo gratias — “Thanks be to God.” If only we would give to these pious usages their full meaning. In certain monasteries — at Carmel, for example — the first words uttered on entering the parlor are Deo gratias, and the same expression is often used in other circumstances. We are perhaps not in the environment in which these external practices are used. But we are not for that reason excused from interior thanksgiving.
To be exhaustive, we ought now to enumerate all the graces that come to us by means of the grace of the Redemption; the gift that Jesus has given to us of His Mother; His sacred Body in the Eucharist; the Church with its organization, its authority, its doctrine, its infallible teaching power, its sacraments, its worship. We cannot review all these graces; we should never finish. It is natural that some individuals feel more drawn to thanksgiving for one benefit rather than for another; such preferences we must respect. Louis Veuillot never tired of thanking God for having given us Mary for our Mother; Newman for having given us the Church to teach us truth; the foundress of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration for the Eucharist; Mother Thérèse of the Cross for having given us the constant Real Presence in the Host: “I vow,” she wrote, “to accept the pains that God pleases to send me in a spirit of thanksgiving for the institution of the adorable Eucharist.”
In reality, each of these graces alone is a world of graces. Think of the wonders involved in the changing of bread into the Body of Christ, in the divine maternity of our Lady, in the preservation of the Church in the unity of faith. “All,” said Msgr. Baumard, “is included in one dogma, that of God’s love for us. All the mysteries of the faith, creation, revelation, the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, derive from this principle; this is the key to all.”
We shall never thank God enough for the love with which He has loved us.
There remains a word to be said of another form — the most perfect form — of thanksgiving: that is, to thank God, not so much for the benefits He has bestowed upon us, but rather for the riches with which He Himself is infinitely endowed. The Gloria in excelsis that we say at Mass is one of the most beautiful of all prayers: “We give Thee thanks, O Lord, for Thy great glory,” gratias agimus tibi, propter magnam gloriam tuam. “Lord, we thank Thee for being so splendid.” The same idea is suggested in the Preface; Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro . . . Vere dignum et justum est. . . “Let us give thanks to God for all that He is: Holy God, Almighty Father” . . .
We need insist no more. Evidently this prayer of thanksgiving approximates very much to the prayer of adoration and praise.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Plus’ How to Pray Well, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.