Perhaps it is a confession of vanity, but when I was in my teenage years, I hated zits. I was perhaps no more pimply than the other folks at my high school, but it was enough! I hated the deleterious effect zits had on my appearance. My already tenuous ability to attract any sort of attention from the fairer sex left me resentful of anything that, in my mind, might set me even further back, especially in the area of physical attractiveness. I reacted to these and other physical imperfections by disliking the body that God gave me, and by envying the beautiful physical appearance of my friends and classmates.
I remember when my older brother turned 22 or 23, he mentioned that his skin had cleared up; he no longer got zits. For whatever reason, the body and its chemical make-up had adjusted to post-puberty, and facial acne became not a problem. As the younger brother, I heard this with great hope and expectation!
I am twenty-four now, and my succeptibility to those nasty little red visitors on my face and skin have long since passed away. I do not remember when they stopped, they just did. Whether their absence has had any effect on my physical appearance I am not one to say, and perhaps I do not want to know! It reminds me of the story of the young basketball player who blamed his limited athletic ability on not having Air Jordan shoes. Someone offered to by him a pair and he said No, “because if with Air Jordons I am still no good at basketball, I won’t have an excuse!”
However, this relatively minor youthful complaint that I had for the better portion of my high school and college years was resolved without my notice. It makes me wonder: How many small (and not-so-small) answers to prayer, how many valuable gifts, and resolutions of long-held tension, have also been given to me without my commemorating, let alone noticing, them? Worse, how many such small blessings have come to me in response to which I have merely responded with an entitled feeling of, “Finally.” “Glad that’s over.” “It’s about time.”
Gratitude is a great Christian virtue. The opposite of envy, it is one of Paul’s fruits of the spirit (contentment, joy, etc.), and it is the subject of high praise in our Lord’s parable about the ten lepers, only one of whom returns to thank Jesus for the gift of healing. We can learn from this parable, among other things, that being grateful to God for his gifts is a matter of at least some intentionality. It is a decision we make, either to commit acts of gratitude or to omit them. It is a skill that can be practiced and learned, or, left fallow to grow stale and atrophy.
The late Jesuit Priest, Father Anthony de Mello, a master at simplicity of expression, put it this way: “There is only one reason you are unhappy right now, and that is you are focusing on what you do not have rather than what you do have.” In other words, all that we want is present and available to us, free for the choosing, if we will only give up our compulsion of continuing to look for what we do not want. For, lke a dog to its vomit, we shall find what we seek.
In Wellsprings, his book of spiritual exercises, de Mello suggests that gratitude is the key at the heart of the difference between happy and unhappy people. He paints the picture of a joyful person who is in poor health, physical pain, ill-reputed, or unjustly imprisoned, and yet remains overflowing with joy. And he contrasts this portrait with that of some who are free, powerful, abundantly wealthy, who enjoys position and respectability but remains frustrated, discontent, and angry. How can this be? He challanges his reader to remember yesterday any occasions for happiness that passed by unnoticed, and to notice them. He challenges his reader to remember occasions for grief and complaint, and inquire whether there is any lesson to be learned, any seed of growth, hidden inside them
God who is all-powerful and abundantly generous is constantly doing things for us and constantly sending us gifts, occasions for laughter, celebration, and renewal. He makes the sun to shine on the wicked and the righteous. His gifts are so many, in fact, it is difficult sometimes to keep up! I chose an intentionally trivial example of my skin clearing up with age, to highlight that His gifts are many, and his answers to prayer sometimes more subtle and particular than our prayers were. He is always one step ahead of us, because his generosity is tireless.
In an effort to move towards re-habituating ourselves by the grace of the Holy Spirit to a habit of attentiveness to the gifts of God and a grateful response to them, let us stop and find one thing today that has happened to us, in the recent or distant past, which we either did not notice, or did notice but did not commemorate, or commemorated, but with a spirit of entitlement. And turning from this sin of ommision, let us think of that one thing and say to the Christ, “Thank you.”