How to Grow in Gratitude to God

How to Grow in Gratitude to God – Fall 2015

The Fall 2015 Adult Faith Formation sessions addressed the topic of “How to grow in gratitude to God,” and were a continuation of the discussion which began in the Spring. Fr. Alan’s notes from the Fall sessions can be read below. You can review the notes from the Spring 2015 sessions at: The Supernatural: how God’s Grace interacts with your life.

Session One – October 4, 2015

You might remember that in the Spring 2015 Adult Faith Formation sessions I addressed the “Are you saved?” phenomenon of Protestant proselytizing. I explained that those kinds of questions are the result of a very pessimistic view of human nature and a very distrustful view of God. In contrast to those (both Catholic and Protestant), who are “selling” salvation as a commodity, the Scriptures describe God as solicitous and providential, always offering a Covenant and always making covenant fidelity possible for those who accept the offer.

In the Spring sessions I recommended that you abandon the language and concepts of “getting graces.” You are probably familiar with the terms “actual grace,” “sufficient grace,” “sanctifying grace,” “sacramental grace,” and the like. Those terms, and their related concepts, are the product of Catholic neo-scholasticism, a theology that reduced Grace to commodities and God to a provider of consumer goods. It is a theology of Grace that differs significantly from the Protestant evangelical theology of Grace, but it shares with Protestantism a pessimistic view of human nature and a distrustful attitude toward God.

At the conclusion of those three sessions, I said that the only faithful response to questions about Grace and human nature is to be able to say truthfully, “I am incredibly grateful for God’s goodness to me.” To be truly grateful for the opportunity to obey the commandments is the experience of Grace. The commandments, for God’s faithful People, are not a burden, but rather an expression of gratitude to God for God’s goodness; they are a blessing. To encounter Grace is to be grateful to God for the vocation and blessing of covenant fidelity (in the same way that happily married people give thanks for the vocation and blessing of the marriage covenant).

I’d like to spend these Fall sessions addressing how one cultivates gratitude for God’s blessings. There is an old, traditional Catholic prayer form called The Examen Prayer. It has been taught and practiced in many forms through the centuries. I’m going to present a modified Ignatian version of the Examen. Today’s session will provide an overview of the prayer and of the first step in doing the prayer. Next week’s session will focus on the second and third steps of the prayer. The final session will address steps four and five of the prayer.

Cultivating gratitude to God used to called “Sanctifying Grace” when Grace was conceived of being something that one could, and ought to, “get” from God. Sanctification, growth in holiness, is part of the life-long process of discipleship; it is the aspect of discipleship that is directed toward God. The other aspects of discipleship are unity with fellow believers and witnessing publicly to one’s faith. These are biblical categories, and ideas that are not found in neo-scholasticism’s schema of “getting graces.” Rather than defining the Christian life as “getting” stuff from God, the Scriptures define the Christian life as giving to others what one owes them. According to the Scriptures, we owe God our obedience (expressed as gratitude, which means happily following God’s will); we owe covenant love to our fellow believers, and we owe non-believers the opportunity to hear the Gospel message. These three are acts of fidelity, each directed to a different recipient.

Here are some of the things that the Scriptures say about gratitude.

“First, I give thanks to my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is heralded throughout the world.” (Romans 1:8)

“Whoever observes the day, observes it for the Lord. Also whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while whoever abstains, abstains for the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (Romans 14:6)

“I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor 1:4)

“And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.” (1 Thes 2:13)

“But we ought to give thanks to God for you always, brothers loved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in truth.” (2 Thes 2:13)

Giving thanks to God is at the very center of Catholicism. The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church described weekly participation in the Liturgy of the Eucharist as “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life.” (LG 11) The Sunday celebration of Eucharist is the weekly ratification and renewal of our Baptismal Covenant with God and fellow believers.

The literal meaning of the word “Eucharist” is “to give thanks.” It is a word taken directly from the Scriptures. When the Gospels describe the blessing prayers (berakoth), that Jesus said over the bread and wine at his Last Supper the phrase “he gave thanks” is used. (Mark 14:22-24) Giving thanks to God was a central aspect of Jesus’ prayer life, and it must also be a central aspect of our prayer. The Examen Prayer is an effective way to cultivate a habit of giving thanks to God.

Cultivating gratitude to God begs the question: gratitude for what? Gratitude must be directed to someone, and about something. In prayer, the “someone” is obviously God, but the “something” must be determined. The ancient philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The Examen Prayer is an exercise in reviewing the events of one’s day with the intention of identifying the many ways in which God was present, giving thanks for that manifold presence and determining how God is leading one to accomplish God’s will. The Examen Prayer creates an awareness of both the God to Whom we are to be grateful and the experiences for which we are to be grateful.

The Examen Prayer intends to teach gratitude as a habit. Long term success in doing The Examen Prayer depends on the same, simple truth that is the foundation of a happy marriage. Couples who remain married, and who find joy in marriage, are couples who want to be together. Successful practice of The Examen Prayer as a habit depends on the desire to love God more appropriately and the desire to experience oneself as beloved of God.

To desire to love God, and to know oneself as loved by God, require the attitude toward religion that I described in the Spring sessions of Adult Faith Formation, that is, religion as the daily, routine encounter with the transcendent God. Please note how different this is from the typical practice of religion. Religion in western society today is most often practiced as a private activity of individual conscience. For some people, this private act is directed toward fulfilling an individualistic ethics; for others, is it directed toward fulfilling a consumer’s needs. In either case, it is strictly individualistic and intensely self-centered.

Neither of these motivations above is sufficient to reach God, or more precisely, to become aware of the presence of God in one’s life. The sort of religion required for a successful practice of The Examen, or any prayer, is religion as relationship. Religion practiced as a conscious, growing relationship with God and fellow believers is the only context in which gratitude can be cultivated as authentic gratitude rather than as something that is strictly self-serving.

Growth occurs in any relationship through mutual disclosure by the parties in the relationship; this is true in human relationships and in our relationship with God. The Examen Prayer is a path toward recognizing the many ways in which God reveals God’s self in our daily lives; it is also a path toward making ourselves more open and honest with God.

Preparation for The Examen Prayer is done in the same way as preparation for any effective prayer: by focusing one’s attention on the presence of God. Choose a place and time that will be conducive to reflective thought and private prayer. If you are surrounded by distractions, or opportunities to let your mind wander, you will have sabotaged your prayer before it begins. Take a few moments to put the worries and plans of the day behind you, and focus solely on God’s presence. Reciting the “Our Father” slowly and deliberately is an effective way to separate prayer time from the routine, secular activities of one’s day.

The first step of The Examen Prayer is to “Give Thanks.” In the first step you acknowledge the many gifts of God’s love that you have encountered in your day. Beginning with your first waking moments, review the day’s events. Take your time; be thorough. Try to remember everything that happened. Be aware that, in everything, God was present to you. Give particular attention to your interactions with other people.

Give thanks to God for everything that occurred in your day. If you’ve had a particularly difficult day, and find it difficult to be grateful for the day’s events, start over and try again. The time when you feel least inclined to do The Examen is the time when you need most to do it. God was present with you at each moment; look for the signs of that Divine presence. Be grateful for everything. Be grateful for the good experiences; they are signs of God’s love for you. Be grateful for the opportunities for trust and growth that the bad experiences of the day provide.

It might take some effort, but soon you will find yourself in a place of profound gratitude to God; stay in that place. Remain in gratitude during your prayer time, and try to remain in that gratitude throughout the next day.

Practice this first step of the prayer each day this week. It is probably best to do this prayer at, or near, the end of the day. There is much more to the prayer than this first step, but daily practice of the first step this week will help you begin to form the habit of a daily Examen.

For more information about this topic: Reflection and our active lives

Session Two – October 11, 2015

Let’s take a few moments to review your experience of the first step of The Examen Prayer. The first step of the prayer is to “Give Thanks.” It is a prayerful remembering of the previous day’s events. In the first step of the prayer, one cultivates a sense of gratitude for all God’s blessings and for the day’s opportunities to grow in faith and virtue.

I asked you to practice the first step of the prayer daily during the past week. This is only the first of five steps of The Examen. Your experience this week was an incomplete experience of the prayer, but it should have accomplished two things for you. First of all, it was intended to help you begin to form the habit of doing this prayer on a daily basis. Second, it should have helped you begin to see how God is present in your daily life, your daily activities and in the interior stirrings of your heart and mind.

The daily Examen is done solely for the purpose of discovering and appreciating what God does in our daily lives. After having reviewed the day, with all its varied aspects, the second step of The Examen Prayer is to ask God’s help to see what God intends us to see in our day’s experiences.

In order to have the experience of living a life graced by God, we must rely on God’s help to identify the manifold presence of God (the presence of Grace), in our lives. The second step of The Examen is to “Pray for Clarity.” In this step we petition God to give us a deeper desire to love God and a deeper awareness of God’s love for us.

At this point it will be helpful to remember the definition we are using for the word “Grace.” In the theology and spirituality of the early part of the Twentieth Century “Grace” referred to multiple created effects in a person’s life. Grace does, in fact, have created effects in our lives. However, “Grace” is not primarily a thing or things; Grace is a person: God. The “Grace” in which we seek to live, and the “Grace” that we seek to discover, and the “Grace” that is revealed to us by The Examen Prayer is God-as-present-to-God’s-People.

In Matthew’s Gospel the Incarnation is described by the Scriptural term “Emmanuel,” “God-with-us.” This is precisely the meaning of the word “Grace.” In our practice of religion as a living and growing relationship with God, “Grace” is shorthand for the faithful and providential way that God relates to us as persons with free will.

In the second step of the prayer, we petition God for an increase in freedom. We ask for God’s help that we might be free enough from our worries, concerns and prejudices to see what God would have us see. This step is crucial to a fruitful experience of The Examen.

Try this exercise: look around the room for things colored yellow. Within a few seconds your eyes will be attracted to anything and everything that is yellow. The children’s game “I spy” depends on the mind’s ability to focus on a particular object. If you look for a particular color, or a source of light, or a particular shape, you will soon begin to notice things that you did not notice before.

This is an extremely useful ability, but it can also work to our disadvantage. If you spend your day looking for goodness, good people and good experiences, you will find good in your day. If you spend your day focusing on bad people, bad experiences and bad feelings, you will find yourself surrounded by sadness and loss.

We find what we seek. Jesus said this same thing, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7) The second step of The Examen is crucial because it is our conscious attempt to be guided by God, and toward God, rather than to be guided by our own human weakness.

At times, it will seem difficult or burdensome to do a daily Examen. You might also find that, at times, you feel something is holding you back from a deeper encounter with God. You might also experience, occasionally, a reluctance to follow through on what you know God would have you do. The second step of the Examen is an opportunity to address these issues. Ask God for the wisdom to see and understand what is, what isn’t, working well in your faith relationship. Ask God for the freedom of spirit to move beyond the obstacles in your faith life. At those times when everything seems to be working well in your faith life, ask God for the freedom to see where God intends to lead you forward.

Having placed your trust in God for help with the day’s Examen, and having asked for the freedom to follow God’s lead, the next step of the prayer is to review the previous day’s activities with the specific goal in mind of seeing what God would have you see in your experiences.

The third step of the Examen is called “Seeking Insight.” In this step we look at each moment of the day in order to see only the things significant for our faith lives. This step is similar to step one, but in this step we weed out distractions, insignificant events and anything that does not turn our mind to God.

In the third step we try to identify what Ignatius of Loyola called “spiritual consolation.” Spiritual consolation is any encounter with another person, or any interior experience, that is readily identifiable as an intervention by God in our day.

This step requires some practice and some assistance. Step Two above is the appropriate preparation for the third step because we require God’s help to identify correctly what is of God in our day and what is not of God.

According to Ignatius, spiritual consolation can come in various forms. At times, it is the feeling of God’s closeness or love. At other times, it can be the experience of clarity or certainty about something that was previously an obstacle, difficulty or unresolved matter in our lives (especially, in our relationship with God).

The daily practice of Seeking Insight will also identify experiences of being distant from God; Ignatius called these negative experiences “spiritual desolation.” Spiritual desolation is marked by a negative emotional response to something that happened during the day. Experiences of spiritual desolation mark a path that we should avoid, just as experiences of spiritual consolation mark a path that leads to God.

Taken together, noticing those thoughts and experiences that draw us closer to God and those thoughts and experiences that would draw us away from God, are the process that Ignatius called “Discernment.” The intended effect of steps Two and Three is to help us discern the various influences in our daily lives in order that we might follow God’s guidance more faithfully.

Keeping in mind that The Examen intends to lead us to live in God’s Grace, that is, in God’s providential and redeeming presence, steps two and three are the means to have a clearer vision of exactly how God would have us live and exactly how God would have us accomplish God’s will in our life.

In the process of discernment we try to see and understand the thoughts that are produced by our experiences of consolation and desolation. Spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation are the ways that our affective life (emotions), are moved by our daily experiences. As these are ways that we are moved, they are not under our control. It is imperative, then, to look at how we respond, because it is our response that is under our control and, therefore, the proper object of our responsibility. Stated another way: spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation come to us of their own accord; it is our responsibility to follow the guidance of spiritual consolation and to reject the influence of spiritual desolation. This is the path to true freedom of will and, therefore, the path to God.

It should be pointed out, at this juncture, that not all consolation is spiritual consolation, and not all desolation is spiritual desolation. Our emotional responses to events and people are varied and constantly changing. The same thing that we find enjoyable on one day, we might experience as burdensome on another day. Furthermore, not all joyful experiences lead us to God; neither do all burdensome experiences lead us away from God.

Augustine described the effects of God’s Grace as pulling a person up toward God, and away from the downward spiraling influence of evil. The difference between ordinary consolation and spiritual consolation is that spiritual consolation brings with it the immediate recognition of being lifted closer to God. In a like manner, the difference between ordinary desolation and spiritual desolation is that spiritual desolation produces thoughts that are recognizable as leading one away from God.

A consolation that does not immediately inspire prayer, thanksgiving or an increase in faith, hope and charity is ordinary consolation. A desolation that does not lead one away from prayer, thanksgiving or an increase in faith, hope or charity is ordinary desolation. To be able to distinguish between what is of God and what is not of God is essential to growing in faith. The second and third steps of The Examen provide instruction and practice in the process of discernment.

During this coming week practice steps one, two and three of The Examen Prayer. Keep in mind that this is still an incomplete experience of the prayer; it is, however, good practice in forming a habit of prayer.

Step One: Give Thanks – review the events of the day; these are blessings from God and opportunities for growth

Step Two: Pray for Clarity – ask for a deeper desire to love God and a deeper awareness of God’s love for you

Step Three: Seek Insight – look at those events that drew you closer to God and those events that tried to draw you away from God

For more information on this topic: Praying backward through your day

Session Three – October 18, 2015

Let’s take a few moments to review your experience of the steps one, two and three of The Examen Prayer. The first step of the prayer is to “Give Thanks.” It is a prayerful remembering of the previous day’s events. In the first step of the prayer, one cultivates a sense of gratitude for all God’s blessings and for the day’s opportunities to grow in faith and virtue.

Having cultivated a sense of gratitude for what God has given, in step two we petition God for Clarity: the wisdom and freedom to see how God has been working in our lives. Thirdly, we examine how our experiences moved us during the day – either toward God or away from God. By gaining Insight into our reactions and choices we begin to see more clearly the direction in which God is guiding our lives.

Thus far, your daily practice has been an incomplete experience of The Examen Prayer. Hopefully, however, you have been able to experience this as real prayer, not just a practice exercise. By the time you have completed step three you should have not only a clearer awareness of where God is leading you, but also a clearer vision of how faithful you have been in following God’s guidance.

The next step is called “Forgiveness.” In step four it is appropriate to seek God’s forgiveness for our failures to follow God’s will faithfully, and to ask God’s help that we might forgive those who have sinned against us.

When young children receive instruction for their First Reconciliation they are taught to begin the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation by saying, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been . . . since my last Confession.” When these children reach adulthood it seems that someone gives them new instruction about the Sacrament of Reconciliation because most adults’ confessions begin, “Father, it’s been a really rough week” or “Father, I’m going through a difficult time.”

I don’t know how it happens, but at some point sin becomes redefined as the sins that other people commit or the disappointments that result from living in a finite universe. It used to be popular to say that our society had lost a sense of sin. I don’t know if that was ever true. What seems to be the case is that our society abandoned a mature sense of sin defined as one’s own failings, and adopted a very self-centered, childish definition of sin as the offensive things other people do.

Step four of The Examen Prayer offers a needed corrective to the warped view of sin and repentance that we get from wider society. The warped view of sin that secular society proposes is, I think, the result of the fact that we live in a culture that is very, very unforgiving. The lack of forgiveness in secular society fosters both a deep resentment about the failings of others and an unwillingness to take responsibility for our own sins. The only remedy for this sad situation is to ask God for forgiveness, and to experience that Divine forgiveness in our daily lives.

At this point, it might be worthwhile to review again the definitions of Grace and religion that we are using in this discussion. “Grace,” for our purposes, is not a thing, but a person: God. Religion is the lifelong practice of growing in a relationship with the gracious God. Step four puts forgiveness in its proper perspective, that is, as an indispensable aspect of all relationships.

At the beginning of this discussion of The Examen Prayer I said that the prayer leads a person to grow in their desire to love God and in their experience of being loved by God. One side of our experience of being loved by God comes to us through the good people and events in our lives; for this, we give thanks. The other side of the experience of being loved by God comes to us through the experience of forgiveness.

Forgiveness, offered and accepted, strengthens a relationship in a way that is not accomplished by any other experience. Rather than accept uncritically the messages that our culture teaches us, namely, that both sin and forgiveness are signs of weakness, perhaps we should look forward to the opportunity to seek and find God’s forgiveness. The Examen Prayer is such an opportunity.

In step four, review your failings during the past day. Give particular attention to the lack of charity you displayed toward others. The graced life that God offers is an invitation to live at peace with God and with other people. Repenting of your lack of charity, and asking God’s forgiveness, creates a clear path to the life of grace.

There is, perhaps, no better measure of a person’s image of God than the experience of repentance. In the neo-scholastic scheme of “getting graces” God is a distant, and often judgmental, provider of rewards to those who are clever enough to merit them. In Protestantism’s scheme of “getting saved” God is a harsh judge who can be side-stepped by “grasping the foreign grace of Christ.” As I mentioned in the Spring series of Adult Faith Formation, neither of these images is true to the Scriptures.

In the preaching of Jesus, God is “Our Divine Father.” (Matthew 6:9) God is the One who seeks and finds the lost, and the One who wishes to reconcile the estranged to one another. (Luke 15) Ignatius of Loyola described God as the One “who loves me more than I love myself.” (Exercises 391)

Step four of The Examen Prayer is an opportunity to experience God’s unwavering love, and to act on that love. In step two we ask for God’s help to see God’s guidance in our day. In step three we discern how to follow that guidance. In step four we repeat this same dynamic: we ask for God’s forgiveness, and we forgive those who have sinned against us.

The Scripture says, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26) In his instructions about discernment Ignatius points out that our emotional responses to events arise on their own, and not all negative emotional experiences lead away from God. Anger toward those who offend us is a routine event, but it does not necessarily lead us away from God. Anger, when nurtured, is a different thing. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians warns us about the consequences of allowing anger to take root in our minds. Letting go of anger and resentment at the end of the day allows us to remain in a place of gratitude to God, and to begin the next day free from obstacles to accomplishing God’s will.

Step four, Forgiveness, is not a mere moral inventory; it is profoundly relational and religious. When we approach forgiveness as a means to growth in our relationships with God and others we are led naturally to identify concrete steps toward such growth. Step five, “Hope,” is a petition to grow in holiness.

Having reviewed the day’s events and experiences in order to perceive the direction in which God has been guiding us, it is now time to look forward to tomorrow. Step five of The Examen Prayer is to make an act of Hope, and ask God’s help with the choices and responsibilities we will face in the day to come. This is the point at which we ask God’s help to grow in our relationship with God and fellow believers.

While every new day brings with it some uncertainties and surprises, we usually have a good idea of what we will be facing. In The Examen, the final act of our day is to ask God’s help when we wake, and begin a new day.

In step three of The Examen we look for Insight into how God is communicating with us and how God is guiding us. The Insight of step three is oriented specifically toward growing in our love of God and in our experience of being loved by God. The final step of the prayer is most effective when we structure as a petition for help to take concrete steps to follow God’s guidance. In step five we make resolutions to attend to God’s communication and to follow God’s will. It is also appropriate to ask for help to avoid temptation and to grow in the virtue forgiveness. Step five is preparation for the future, but preparation of one, particular sort: cultivating Hope that we might trust in God’s love.

At the beginning of this Adult Faith Formation series I emphasized one, particular way of practicing religion: as a growing relationship with God and others. Step five of The Examen makes concrete our desire to grow in love of God and neighbor.

Any unfamiliar form of prayer requires six to eight weeks of practice. After that period of time it will become either sufficiently habitual to serve as an adequate way of praying or sufficiently distasteful that you will know this form of prayer doesn’t work for you. Try The Examen Prayer, in its entirety, for six to eight weeks. During that period of time, review these notes occasionally. With practice, most people find The Examen leads them closer to God. Living daily in a growing relationship with God illuminates the emptiness of trying to “get graces” or to “get saved.” God does not wish to be our preferred source for obtaining consumer commodities. Rather, God desires to love us and to be loved by us.

The Examen Prayer

Give Thanks – review the events of the day; these are blessings from God and opportunities for growth

Pray for Clarity – ask for a deeper desire to love God and a deeper awareness of God’s love for you

Seek Insight – look at those events that drew you closer to God and those events that tried to draw you away from God

Forgiveness – seek God’s forgiveness for your sins, and forgive those who have offended you

Hope – ask God’s help to live more in tune with God’s loving will for the world

For more information on this topic: The Daily Examen