How Jesuit brothers made me more grateful
A Reflection for Wednesday of the Thirty-second Week in Ordinary Time
Find today’s readings here.
And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. (Lk 17:15-16)
Is there anything nicer than receiving a handwritten thank-you note in the mail—or even just a plain text email with “Thank you” in the subject line? I have lost count of the times and reasons for which I have been the recipient of this simple but profoundly thoughtful gesture. Every time it happens, my heart warms. “What a wonderful surprise! How nice of them,” I think to myself. “I should do this myself more often.” I’ve tried to institute this practice into my daily routine, but I’ve failed. I usually go as far as browsing websites of custom stationery printers, getting lost in the beauty of the designs until I’m scared away by the price of being nice! Or, I start writing the note and stall at my inability to pen the perfect note. Wait! Maybe that’s what happened to the nine other lepers—they never got around to sending the thank-you note to Jesus…. I digress.
There are at least two thank-you notes I regret not sending during some of my most formative years as a Jesuit; both to Jesuit brothers who reminded me how crucial gratitude was to the spiritual life. Rather than obsess over the perfect medium and time for conveying my thanks to these two brothers for whom I have great affection, I am seizing the moment and expressing my gratitude publicly through this daily Scripture reflection:
I was having a particularly difficult time early on in my days studying philosophy in London. I shared my woes with my spiritual director Alan Harrison, S.J., a brother of the British Province of the Jesuits. He listened with great gentleness and tenderness—and without any interruption—as I raged on… and on. “What are you most grateful for?” he asked, at the end of my screed. Silence engulfed the room. I can’t quite remember what I said next, but it was probably something perfunctory like, “The gift of a new day!” Before I knew it though, that single superficial admission of something good led me to tens more. It completely changed my until-then bleak outlook on my Jesuit life. Before we ended the session Alan gave me the advice for which I hopefully shared my appreciation in person, but never took the time to write to him about.
He advised that in the month leading up to our next meeting, when doing my daily Examen—Ignatius’ prayer for reviewing our day; an indispensable prayer that the founder of the Jesuits stressed should be observed daily, no matter how hectic our schedules may be—I should focus solely on the first two steps of that prayer: First, ask God to send down the Holy Spirit of Light upon my day, and then spend the rest of the time looking back on my day to identify key moments of gratitude. This exercise has become fundamental to my understanding of prayer, and of what is most important. I have often returned to it in my prayer practice, but perhaps more importantly I have often prescribed it to those under my spiritual care.
In rare moments, I can break out in a litany of gratitude for the graces and joys I’ve received, despite ever-present struggles.
Years after Alan impressed upon me the need for gratitude, I found myself again lamenting to Davidson Braga, S.J., a Jesuit brother in Brazil with whom I worked while studying theology in Brazil, about the dire state of things and how it seemed there was little for which to be thankful. “Ingratitude is the greatest sin according to Ignatius,” he said in response to my tirade. Again, his words stopped me. “Really?” I asked, “Where does he say that?” It was the first time I had heard this in my life. I had certainly heard about the primacy of gratitude for Ignatius, but I was surprised to learn that Ignatius considered its inverse sinful. This discovery led me to inquire more deeply. I came across a letter that St. Ignatius Loyola wrote on March 18, 1542, to Simão Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit and one of Ignatius’ earliest companions dating back to the time they studied together in Paris:
It seems to me in the light of the Divine Goodness, although others may think differently, that ingratitude is the most abominable of sins and that it should be detested in the sight of our Creator and Lord by all of His creatures who are capable of enjoying His divine and everlasting glory. For it is a forgetting of the gracious benefits, and blessings received. As such it is the cause, beginning, and origin of all sins and misfortunes. On the contrary, the grateful acknowledgment of blessings and gifts received is loved and esteemed not only on earth but in heaven.
Davidson’s reminder remains poignant. Again, I never wrote to thank him for that conversation. Still, as I think back on it, especially in the light of today’s Gospel, there is something important I was missing then that Davidson and Alan, in their respective gentleness and tenderness, were trying to alert me to.
When I look beyond my hurts, disappointments and pains and open a space for gratitude within myself, I can escape the malaise that renders me helpless, fuels blame of others, and leads me to wallow in ungrateful self-pity. In these rare moments, I can break out in a litany of gratitude for the graces and joys I’ve received, despite ever-present struggles.
It was ultimately, we are told, when “one of them, realizing he had been healed,” that he was brought to the deep realization and humble acknowledgment of what God had truly done. It was this that brought a single leper to fall at the feet of Jesus, glorifying and thanking God.