A Heart Filled With Gratitude
We've all heard the story of a half-filled glass being placed in front of two people. The optimist sees the glass as half-full, while the pessimist sees it as half-empty. How we respond reveals our disposition and how we see ourselves in the world around us.
However, if this exercise is viewed in a spiritual context, it reveals much more. It reveals the nature of sin and the character of temptation. Seeing the glass as half-full is an indicator of gratitude, while seeing it as half-empty focuses on what is lacking.
If, for a moment, we look at the seven deadly sins: envy, greed, pride, lust, anger, and so on, we find they have a common characteristic. What they have in common is the perception that something is lacking. What we must realize, and fully understand, is that temptation is always self-centered. Rather than appreciating our blessings, temptation entices us to believe that we have been deprived, that we need more, and deserve more. And, if this point of view continues, temptation wins, sin prevails, and the results can be catastrophic.
In the second reading St. Paul outlines the two fundamental principles of spiritual growth. Hopefully, we all want to grow in our spirituality. Certainly, we don't want to wrestle with the same issues, with the same sins, over and over again.
What we may not realize is: passivity in our spiritual lives always has grave consequences. If we are not actively pursuing and growing in our spiritual life, temptation will lead us in regressive directions. There is no safe, secure middle ground. St. Paul says, “Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit.”1 Not combating temptation, not fortifying our spiritual lives, always results in a severe crisis of the soul – a crisis that puts ourselves and those we love in grave danger.
The Philosopher Aristotle once said, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.”2 Spiritual growth enables us to truly know ourselves, not according to the popular philosophies of the day, but the true meaning and purpose of our lives. It enables us to experience in the depths of our souls the innermost longings of our hearts.
Dying to Sin
According to St. Paul, the first path of spiritual growth is: 'Dying to Sin'. 'Dying to Sin' means defeating the self-centered tendencies in our thoughts and lives that, if given free reign, will lead us into serious error and cause devastation in our lives, our families, and society.
Too often, we fail to realize the seriousness of the spiritual attacks we face. We allow ourselves to flirt with sin. Then, having given evil an open door, temptation progresses from desire to actuality. Then, in defensiveness and guilt, we deny our actions are sinful. We make compromises, and attempt to justify our behavior, and the Divine Life of Christ in our souls is suffocated in the process.
In the early years of his spiritual journey, St. Benedict, the founder of monasticism, left a cosmopolitan career in Rome in order to follow God. Soon thereafter, he experienced violent temptations against chastity. It was as if the devil himself had taken control of his imagination, and was filling his mind with illusions of pleasure. Satan was tempting him to abandon his new vocation, and luring him to return to the glamour of his former life.
One day the temptations were so strong that even prayer didn't make them go away. But he was determined to be faithful to God. And so, to put an end to the temptations he threw himself into a thorn-bush, in hope that the painful pricks of the thorns would distract him from the allure of illicit pleasures. And it worked.
Temptations again chastity are as strong today as ever, They are equally a threat against men and women, particularly when sins against modesty are considered. And temptations of pride, envy, avarice, and other deadly sins, are equally prevalent and equally dangerous.
Throwing himself into a thorn-bush worked for St. Benedict. But before we all go out and throw ourselves into the bushes, we need understand the Scriptural principle for St. Benedict's action.
St. Benedict was trying to find a distraction strong enough to quell Satan's temptations. The Book of Sirach, in addressing temptation and resentment, advises the same principle. It states, “Do not give in to sadness, torment not yourself with brooding; Gladness of heart is the very life of man, … Distract yourself, renew your courage, drive resentment far away...”3
Temptation is always centered on ourselves, centered on some advantage or pleasure we desire, and Satan always attacks us where we are most vulnerable. What Benedict and Sirach advise is an effective tactic, a change of focus, not on ourselves, not on what we lack, but on others, and on all the blessings we have received. Temptation cannot sway a heart that is filled with gratitude.
Living in Christ
The second path to spiritual growth is 'Living in Christ'. The philosopher, Cicero, once said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”4 I'm can speak confidently for all the clergy, in stating that gratitude was, and is, a primary factor in our calling and service. Every aspect of our spiritual life begins and ends with gratitude.
In the Psalms, David writes, “How can I repay the Lord for all the good done for me?”5 How can we repay the Lord for His love, His Kindness, His Mercy, His Forgiveness, and the salvation He won for us on the Cross? How can we ever repay the gift of Our Lord in the Sacraments, His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist, and the opportunity to share in His Mission?
At best we are unprofitable servants, unworthy of the gifts we have received, and certainly incapable of repaying our indebtedness, as if our meager efforts merit any reward.
Yet, in the readings for daily mass, and in today's readings Jesus does not speak of repayment. Instead He speaks of even greater gifts and rewards for our faithfulness. Such is the generosity of Our Lord that he promises us rewards beyond measure.
Jesus tells us that when we pray, fast, or give alms, we will be rewarded. He goes even further saying; whoever receives a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; whoever welcomes a righteous man will receive a righteous man's reward, and even whoever gives a cup of cold water to a disciple will be rewarded.
The Woman of Shunem, in today’s first reading, is an example of a person living in Christ, an example of a heart filled with gratitude. She knew in her heart - in the depths of her soul - that Elisha was a holy man of God. And, she was so thankful to have his presence in her life and in her community that she persuaded her husband to make a room for him.
She didn’t do it for selfish reasons, nor to look good in the eyes of her neighbors. She did it out of gratitude. In caring for Elisha she saw an opportunity to glorify God. She saw an opportunity to express her love by using her own resources to support God’s chosen servant.
She asked for nothing in return and desired no reward. But Elisha saw her love of God and asked if anything could be done for her. The Lord responded and gave her a son, a son who would later be raised from the dead to further glorify her Lord and God.
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus tells us, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me."6 To receive Elisha, was to receive God. To give a cup of cold water to another, is to receive Christ.
The Woman of Shunem rejoiced on Elisha's visitation. She rejoiced at the birth of her son, and she rejoiced at his resurrection. We, too, have been given a prophet. We, too, have been given a Son - God's only begotten Son, who was raised from the dead to free us from our sins.
And so, in summary, to die to sin and live in Christ, our entire spiritual life must begin and end with gratitude. Temptation cannot penetrate a heart filled with gratitude. David said, “How can I repay the Lord for all the good done for me?”7 Our Lord took David out of the sheepfold and made him king. He took us out of our slavery to sin, and made us Children of God, So we ask, “How can we repay the Lord for all the good done for us?”