One of my favorite stories is the Lord of the Rings. The author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was a committed Catholic and filled the story with many Christian themes. One powerful image is the contrast between light and darkness, a metaphor for the conflict between good and evil. Throughout most of the story, darkness is spreading throughout the world called Middle Earth. The darkness is ominous; it threatens to engulf the whole world and block out any light. At the risk of sounding over-dramatic, I suggest that a similar darkness can spread can spread across our hearts.
The sufferings and difficulties we encounter can be a darkness that engulfs our existence if we are not careful. The negative things that happen to us can spread and cover our whole life like a fog so that it is the only thing we see and focus on. One of the most interesting things about suffering I read in a book by Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and holocaust survivor. In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Frankl records his experiences living in a Nazi concentration camp and some of the observations that he was able to make about human nature. The whole book is very powerful, but I was particularly struck by his reflection on suffering. Suffering, he said, is like a gas. If you take a certain volume of gas and place it into a container, the gas will expand to fill the whole container. This happens regardless of the quantity of gas. Regardless if the quantity is small or large, the gas will expand to fill the entire container. Suffering behaves the same way in our life. Suffering will always spread to fill however much space we give it in our life. The suffering can be great, like in a concentration camp, or smaller, like the daily inconveniences of life. Regardless of the objective amount of suffering we experience, if we are not careful this suffering will expand to fill our whole life so that it is the only thing that we see and focus on. If we let it, the negative things that we experience in our life will be like a darkness that spreads over us so that it is the only thing that we can see.
When this happens we easily lose sight of all the good that Jesus does for us in our life. Because we tend to focus on the suffering we experience, we are in the dark and ignore all the gifts that Christ continually gives. Certainly we all experience suffering in our life, whether it is big or small. At the same time, like the ten lepers in gospel, Jesus has touched our life. He has given us gifts and continues to do so. Some gifts were given long ago and we often take them for granted: our life, faith, family, friends and living in Canada. In other, simple ways, Jesus communicates His love to us, usually through other people. For example, a good conversation with a friend, a nice meal with family or a smile from a stranger are really gifts from Jesus. Jesus is always working in our life but we often miss it. It is as though the negative experiences of life form a cover of darkness, preventing us from seeing anything else.
Gratitude to Jesus cuts through the darkness that suffering can cause in our life. When we give thanks to Christ for the gifts He gives, we break up the fog caused by difficulties and negativities that blinds us to all else. As we heard in the gospel today, gratitude is such an important virtue. Jesus expressed His discouragement that only one out of the ten lepers He healed returned to give Him thanks. Though all were healed, only the one who returned back to give thanks is told by Jesus that He was saved. It was his gratitude to Christ that saved Him. The same goes for us. This weekend we celebrate Thanksgiving. In addition to eating turkey, this holiday is a great opportunity to practice the virtue of gratitude. On this holiday we can experience something of how we are saved through gratitude to Christ. When you are gathered with your family, when you celebrate together, when you give thanks to God for all He has given, how do you feel? Joy? Happiness? Isn’t it the case that you are less aware of your sufferings and difficulties at this moment? Gratitude is not just a courtesy that we offer someone who has given us a gift. When we show gratitude, we are also doing ourselves a favor because we remind ourselves of the good things in our life. Remember the analogy of Viktor Frankl. Suffering is like a gas that will expand to fill the container you put it in. Gratitude is a way to ensure that we keep our suffering in a small container. We cannot get rid of suffering but we can limit the effect it has on our life. Gratitude to Christ does this, it breaks through the darkness of suffering that can cover our life.
Being thankful to Jesus for His gifts is a habit that we need to practice daily. It is important to show our gratitude to God on this holiday of Thanksgiving, but it is really something that we need to do each and every day. The first step in showing gratitude to Jesus is being aware of the gifts that He has in fact given us. For myself I realize that I do a poor job of this. At the end of the day, I easily remember all the bad experiences. It is difficult for me to remember the good experiences. These events, which are really gifts from Jesus, are ways He shows His love. I imagine that your experience is similar. This is why it is very important for me to take a short time each night to review my day. St. Ignatius of Loyola calls this the “examen”. In an examen, you take 5 minutes or so to review your day. You begin by looking for 3 or so “moments of grace”, simple ways in which God was really present: a good conversation with someone, a time of peace in prayer, an unexpected compliment. When I do this I am surprised because I always remember many moments of grace that I would have completely forgotten about otherwise. The practical result is that I become more aware that God does indeed love me because He is giving me these gifts during the day. After finding these moments of grace, the second step is simple: give thanks to Jesus for them. As I continue with my examen I can go on to look for ways that I did not follow Christ as best I could that day. But the first step though is always to take the time to remember how God has blessed me and to give thanks. I find this daily habit of showing gratitude to Jesus to be very powerful.
In the Lord of the Rings there is one moment when the lead character, Frodo, finds himself in a place of extreme darkness. When this happens, he is able to pull out from his pocket an object which is a powerful source of light. When he does this the effect is dramatic. The darkness that surrounds him is pushed back in a rapid, dramatic way. Taking the time to be grateful to Jesus can have the same effect in our life. Test this in your own life. Today before you go to sleep try to remember three moments of grace in the day and give thanks to Jesus for them. On Thanksgiving this would be a great activity to do as a family. Make a habit of this and you will notice a change in your life. Taking time each day to show gratitude to Christ breaks the darkness that blinds us to the reality that Jesus is always giving us gifts and shining His rays of love upon us.