Gratitude—not guilt—is the first step toward knowing God

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

St. John of the Cross insisted that the first movement of genuine spirituality is gratitude. Or conversely, we know that we have been truly touched by God when we cannot help but feel grateful.

Others would disagree, proposing instead that guilt is the first movement of grace. Isn’t revival preaching premised on the notion that you must recognize your sinfulness, your need for a savior?


Some of us, following St. Augustine’s lead, would argue that if we can recognize our sinfulness then we are already well within the sphere of grace. Why? Because sin blinds us by its very nature. Those enmeshed in sin cannot see themselves for who they are. Consequently, if you feel some healthy guilt, you’ve already been touched by grace.

We know that we have been truly touched by God when we cannot help but feel grateful.

The Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, wonderfully illustrates her Carmelite forebears’ wisdom. God touched her first with gratitude, not guilt. She straightaway recognized who God was in her life when she first felt grateful for that life. And this happened incredibly early.

We know this because her beloved older sibling, who was also her prioress at the time, sensed that God was doing something extraordinary in the life of Thérèse. She asked her little sister to write down what would eventually be called TheStory of a Soul.

Thérèse began, like Augustine before her, saying that she was compelled to praise the mercies of God. Then she wrote what might be called a parable of lilies. Do not let Thérèse’s tone, so devoid of worldliness, blind you to her acuity.

It was he who had her born in a holy soil, impregnated with a virginal perfume. It was He, too, who had her preceded by eight Lilies of dazzling whiteness. In His love He wished to preserve His little flower from the world’s empoisoned breath. Hardly had her petals begun to unfold when this divine Savior transplanted her to Mount Carmel where already two Lilies, who had taken care of her in the springtime of her life, spread their sweet perfume. Seven years have passed by since the little flower took root in the garden of the Spouse of Virgins, and now three Lilies bloom in her presence. A little farther off another lily expands under the eyes of Jesus. The two stems who brought these flowers into existence are now reunited for all eternity in the heavenly Fatherland. There they have found once again the four Lilies the earth had not seen develop. Oh! May Jesus deign not to allow a long time to pass on these strange shores for the flowers left in exile. May the Lily-plant be soon complete in Heaven.

The “lilies” are the members of the Louis and Zélie Martin family. Of their eight children, three would enter Carmel, one would enter another religious congregation, and four would die as children. Thérèse’s parents were themselves later canonized.

Then Thérèse wrote: “I have just summed up in a few words, dear Mother, what God did for me. Now I will go into detail about the years of my childhood.” The point of Thérèse’s little parable is precisely “what God did for me.” God allowed her to be born into a family of saints, and Thérèse recognized this blessing. “God was pleased all through my life to surround me with love, and the first memories I have are stamped with smiles and the most tender caresses.”

God is pure goodness, pure love, pure beauty. Look for those things in your life, and you will see God.

Most of us can sit down and make a long list of things we have done wrong. Sins that we must claim as our own. Yet if we can do this, it is because we have known God. But if you would like to see how you came to know God, sit down and make a long list of your blessings.

God is pure goodness, pure love, pure beauty. Look for those things in your life, and you will see God. Not God in the infinite depths of his own mystery but the precise points where this God has entered your life. We call these “graces.”

Love of God casts out sin. You cannot love what you do not know. And you cannot know what you have not seen. So, go back, in graced memory, and look for goodness, love and beauty in the story of your life.

Did Thérèse see more than you? That is the inexhaustible beauty of grace. The more you look for it, the more you will find it. Even rough spots may take on a sheen of grace in memory. St. Augustine taught that memory was a map into God’s presence. In his memoir, he admitted to many sins, but from the beginning, his pages are suffused with the presence, the grace, of his mother Monica.

Once you really see God, you will find that you cannot but to be grateful. And, as St. John taught, this is the first movement of an authentic spirituality. Everything else will follow.

Readings: 2 Kings 5:14-17 2 Timothy 2:8-13 Luke 17:11-19

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Michael Bindner
8 months 3 weeks ago

To be grateful, one must realize they are broken, not as a general prospect, nut by the experience of life. Gratitude is a realization that when life was impossible, God carried you. The comfortable need abnegation to simulate being broken, the suffering do not.

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