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By André Brouillette, SJ 

Newborn babies believe that they’re the centre of their world, if not the centre of the world. When their needs are not satisfied in a timely manner, they know how to make themselves heard by making a racket. As they grow up, they gradually learn that the people around them are also their subjects, the ones who take care of them, who give them everything they need and generously give themselves over to them. We teach toddlers to say “thank you.” Learning to ask nicely (say please!) and be thankful for what we are offered helps us to recognize that not everything is owed to us, but that lots of things are given to us freely and generously, even if we don’t necessarily “earn” them. Gratitude underpins all interpersonal relations. Children who learn to receive the gift of another with gratitude are soon capable of giving to others and welcoming their gratitude. Indeed, children are called upon to grow in gratitude.

As children of God, we are also called to grow in gratitude. God’s gift is always given first and does not depend on our response; like the love of parents for their newborn child—it’s given from the very beginning. God works tirelessly in our favour, even when we do not recognize it. We instinctively ask things of God: “Give us this day…” we say in the Lord’s Prayer. Acknowledging God’s gift—naming it and giving thanks—requires learning, practice, and growth on our part. We need to change our perspective and recognize that everything given is unearned, everything is a gift. The Christian imagination is permeated by the acknowledgement of God’s gifts and their importance in our relationship with God: grace, gratitude, eucharist (from the Greek for “giving thanks”), adoration, and even singing praises are all ways to express this movement towards God by those who say thank you and pray with gratitude.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola was very aware of the importance of integrating this attitude of gratitude deep within our relationship with God. He even made it the first movement of a form of prayer emphasized in his Spiritual Exercises but also to be used in everyday life: the Examen. This prayer encourages us to reflect on our day in light of our relationship with God. First, before we consider the day’s thoughts and actions, Ignatius invites the person praying to give thanks to God our Lord for the blessings received (Spiritual Exercises, §43). The relationship of prayer thus begins from a position of gratitude, with an act of thanksgiving for everything that has been so generously given. In acknowledging these gifts, we give form to the actions that follow; they are the human response to God’s initial gift.

Gratitude can even be shown with a “cry of wonder” (SE §60). Indeed, while Ignatius invites retreatants to courageously face the limits of their love, they have often been sinful, which leads them to sorrow and tears (SE §55). But this sadness does not have the last word. By recognizing that it was their refusal of this love, this gift, which led to their sin, the greatness of God’s gifts becomes even more clear, revealing the unconditional nature of his love. As retreatants meditate on their personal sin, they are also invited, in the final stages of their contemplation, to utter this “cry of wonder from a soul moved by emotion” (SE §60) as they marvel at living in the midst of all of creation, the angels, and even the saints. They thus give a great cry of gratitude—giving thanks before a God whose justice is mercy.

In the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola, the summit of this gratitude is expressed in the contemplation that brings a close to the thirty-day retreat of the Spiritual Exercises. Retreatants are led on a long journey that begins with the consideration of creation and sin and then moves to following Jesus, from the Incarnation and his public life to his death and resurrection. In contemplating the life of Jesus, retreatants ask themselves:

What am I doing? How am I living my relationship with Christ? How am I being called to follow him? How can I respond to the gifts that God has given to me? Concrete answers are explored, imagined, and sometimes given.

At the very end of this journey comes the contemplation to attain love (SE §230–237). At the beginning of this prayer, Ignatius reminds us that love is found in deeds more than in words and consists of a mutual sharing of what we possess with the one we love. (SE §230–231) Love, therefore, is a reciprocal gift, a mutual relationship. How else can we respond to extraordinary love other than by extraordinary gratitude? The first moment of this contemplation is thus focused on recalling all of the past blessings received from God (SE §234), both those shared by all humanity—the gift of creation, salvation; and those which are more personal—how God has done everything for us, has given us everything, and even wants to give himself to us! Ignatius then invites us to a gratitude that is on the same scale as God’s generosity: immense and without limits—a gratitude that takes over our whole being, our whole life! Faced with such a gift, we are encouraged to say a big thank you, responding gratuitously, freely, and generously, such as Ignatius did in his most famous prayer: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.” (SE §234)

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