It is time to ask ourselves the important question: what has been our own practice with regard to the duty of thanksgiving in general? What is our habitual feeling about God’s numberless blessings to us? How long a time have we ever spent in summing up God’s blessings to us, even when we have been on retreat?
St. Ignatius wisely tells us to commence our examination of conscience every day with counting up the mercies of God and thanking Him for them. Have we so much as kept faithfully to this little practice? Many have regular times in the day for different spiritual duties; have we any time especially set apart for thanksgiving?
Many, again, keep in their prayer books a little note of the things and persons to pray for; have we any similar memento of the blessings for which we desire daily to thank our Heavenly Father? How often have we besieged the throne of grace for weeks and weeks with Our Fathers, Hail Marys, Misereres, Memorares, Rosaries, Communions, and even penances, for something we desired; and when at last our dear Lord condescended to our importunity, what proportion did our thanksgiving bear to our supplication? How long did it last? In what did it consist? With what fervor and increase of love was it accompanied?
Alas! We have all great need to take shame to ourselves in this respect. So far from having an abiding spirit of thanksgiving, or a keen, lifelong recollection of God’s mercies, or a loving regularity in the worship and sacrifice of thanksgiving, we go on letting the Holy Spirit Himself touch our hearts with an intimate sense of our obligations to God and our dependence on Him, waiting until He does do so and then feebly responding to His call; so that we let Him, as it were, ask for our thanks rather than pay them with a free heart and out of an abounding love.
Where we fail is that we do not correspond to His touch; we need His pressure. We would be quick enough to see the wretchedness of all this if a fellow creature did it to us.
But answer these questions honestly to your guardian angels, and then say if you think I exaggerated when I said that the disproportion of thanksgiving to prayer is one of the wonders of the world, and one of its saddest wonders, too.
But what is the cause of all this? It comes from your perverse refusal to look at God as your Father.
Independent of open sin, there is scarcely a misery that does not come from these hard, dry, churlish views of God. That is the root of the evil. You must lay the axe there, if you really desire to be other than you are. No schemes for self-improvement will stand in the stead of it.
You may meditate, and examine your conscience, and tell your beads, and little enough will come of it, as you have so often found already. How wonderfully people can be regular in making their daily meditation without its ever melting into them! Not a passion is subdued, not an unloveliness smoothed away! They have the custom of prayer without the gift of it. You may do penances, and they will rather harden your heart in a delusion of vainglorious humility than melt into simple, genuine love. The very sacraments will work only like machines out of order.
Whether it is stunted growth in the spiritual life that you deplore, or the absence of all sensible devotion, or incapacity to make and keep generous resolutions, or teasing relapses into unworthy imperfections, or want of reverence in prayer, or lack of sweetness with others, in almost every case the mischief may be traced to an unaffectionate view of God.
You must get clear of this. You must cultivate a filial feeling toward Him. You must pray to the Holy Spirit for His gift of piety, whose special office it is to produce this feeling.
Your most prominent idea of God must be as the God “of whom all paternity is named in heaven and on earth.” You must remember that the Spirit of Jesus is the one true Spirit and that He is the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, “Abba, Father!”
You will never be right until your view of God as your Father swallows up all your other views of Him, or at least until they are brought into harmonious subordination to that view, which is the sweet soul of the gospel and the life of our Blessed Savior’s teaching.
A man could not do better than devote his whole life to be the apostle of this one idea, the compassionate paternity of God.
In matters of spiritual progress, our interests are identical with God’s glory. This is another of His loving contrivances. Hence we may still further persuade ourselves to the practice of thanksgiving by reflecting from a spiritual point of view on the benefits to ourselves that result from it.
Growth in holiness is nothing but the continual descent upon us of those fresh graces, which crown every act of correspondence on our part to graces already received; and there is nothing, as we know, that so multiplies graces upon us, or causes God to throw the doors of His treasury so wide open, as the devotion of thanksgiving.
But it is not only in this way that it helps us on in holiness. Its effects on our mind must also be taken into account. Many persons try to advance in spirituality and are held back, as it were, by some invisible hand. The fact is, and they do not realize it, they have never been thoroughly converted to God. They have stayed too short a time in the purgative way of the spiritual life, or they have bargained with God and kept back some attachment, or wished to loosen themselves from unworthy habits gently and gradually, so as to be spared the pain of conversion.
Now, thanksgiving swiftly but imperceptibly turns our religion into a service of love; it draws us to take God’s views of things, to range ourselves on His side even against ourselves, and to identify ourselves with His interests even when they seem to be in opposition to our own. Hence we are led to break more effectually with the world and not to trail its clouds and mists along with us on our road to heaven.
Hence, also, we come to root and ground ourselves more effectually in the sense of our own vileness and worse than nothingness before God; and what is all this but to make our conversion more thorough and complete?
Neither is the effect of thanksgiving less upon our growth than it is upon our conversion. All growth comes of love; and love is at once both the cause and effect of thanksgiving.
What light and air are to plants, that is the sense of God’s presence to the virtues; and thanksgiving makes this sensible presence of God almost a habit in our souls. For it leads us continually to see mercies that we should not otherwise have perceived, and it enables us far more worthily to appreciate their value, and in some degree to sound the abyss of divine condescension out of which they come.
Moreover, the practice of thanksgiving in ourselves leads us to be distressed at the absence of it in others; and this keeps our love of God delicate and sensitive and breeds in us a spirit of reparation, which is especially congenial to the growth of holiness.
Our hearts are enlarged while we are magnifying God; and when our hearts are enlarged, we run the way of His commandments, where we have only walked or crept before. We feel a secret force in overcoming obstacles and in despising fears, and altogether a liberty in well-doing, which we used not to feel before; and all because thanksgiving has made us measure the height of God’s goodness and the depth of our vileness; and so nothing looks too much or too hard where the glory of God is concerned. Like Areuna in the time of the pestilence, we give to the King as kings ourselves, and in the spirit of kings. Our hearts are crowned with thanksgiving.
It is a great mistake to think lightly of happiness in religion, of enjoyment in religious services, of sweetness in prayer, of gladness in mortification, and of sensible devotion. True it is that when God subtracts them, it is not necessarily in anger or as a chastisement; and whatever be the cause, our plain duty is to submit ourselves to His sweet, though inscrutable, will. But this does not hinder all these things from being mighty aids in the spiritual life, and therefore to be desired and coveted with earnestness, although in a submissive spirit.
Who does not know cases in which everything seems to go wrong because a person has no happiness in religion? Even at Mass and Benediction a veil is over their hearts, which neither music nor brightness, nor yet the divine presence, can penetrate.
God’s blessings are as dull to such people as His chastisements are to the generality of men. Prayer is a penance; confession a torture; Communion a very rack. What God blesses for them irritates like a sore. What He fills with peace troubles them with disquietude. They have no light but the gloom of their own perverse moodiness, and they have no song but peevishness. Inquire if such persons have ever had a spirit of thanksgiving, and you will find you have hit exactly on the characteristic omission of their lives.
Perhaps they have been converts to the holy Faith. They have obeyed grace grudgingly. When they were safe in the Church, they would see difficulties everywhere, from the Pope and Roman manners downward. Imaginary evils surrounded every step. There was temporal unhappiness, and was the Faith worth it? There was the annoyance of learning a new religion, and new ceremonies, and this made them snappish. Then preachers said such strong things, and they must complain to a score of people of this, as if everything was to be suited to them.
It was the Assumption, and the dear, good Irish wanted to hear of their Mother’s Coronation; but then this important convert was at church and had brought an important Protestant friend with him and should have been consulted, or forewarned. It was so unkind, so injurious, in his presence, to say our Lady had twelve stars on her head. Were they planets or fixed stars? The whole matter is full of difficulties. Really, preachers should be more careful!
Then, in the confessional, it was all so uncomfortable, so coarse, and vulgar, and matter of fact. There was so little smooth talking, and yet much that was so dreadfully to the point.
Thus, from one cause or another, the poor convert has been miserable ever since conversion; and why? Immersed in self, and magnifying self, seeking consolations, and hungering after sympathy, such persons have hardly once fallen like children on their knees to thank God for the miracle of love that brought them where they are.
A thankful heart would have taken joyously all the incipient difficulties of its new position, as a penance for the hard-heartedness that had given grace so much trouble and cost it so many efforts in the process of conversion. But these persons were not thankful, and so they are not happy. Let us thank God that their numbers are so few.
This, however, is another point to be made much of: that happiness in religion comes from the spirit of thanksgiving.