By Erin Buckley
Everyday Ignatian is a series written by guest contributors, chronicling their daily lives and experiences through the lens of Ignatian spirituality.
“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
I played recreational soccer in elementary and middle school. Sometimes at the end of a game, as my mother folded up her chair, she would ask, “Did you thank your coaches?” If I hadn’t, she would prompt me to do so. This meant jogging back across the field — the width of a junior recreational soccer field — to say “thank you.” I thought the act was a little grandiose; I had already told my teammates goodbye. However, Mom’s prompt communicated that “thank you” isn’t a garnish on a dish: it’s a dish itself; it deserves its own helping.
Before the game, the referee would ensure our team was wearing shin guards by instructing us to bend over and knock against our knees. Mom’s prod at the game’s end indicated that gratitude, although it might seem like something soft or easily overlooked, was like the shin guards, something necessary.
The version of the Examen I pray with includes gratitude as a core component. I start the nightly prayer by recalling that I am in God’s loving presence. The next step solicits gratitude: Be concrete: recall the taste of jam on toast, the fragrance of a flower, the smile (yours or someone else’s) in response to a kind word, an act of patience that gave someone ease.
I like the examples included in this version of the Examen. I like how a smell’s waft or a taste — fleeting sensory experiences — make the list. It gives me permission to note small things that happened during the day. Indeed, recognizing concrete examples often requires that they be particular. When I pray through this section, I am challenged to remember brief moments — the flicker of an unexpected smile, a conversation with a coworker, a moment of humor. I reflect on a circumstance that otherwise would meld into the generality of the day. I grant it precision the way a particular line of dialogue inspires a poem, the way a particular view inspires a painter.
In this way, I think being grateful makes artists of us all. James Baldwin said, “The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” Poet Billy Collins reflects on his poetic impulse, “I do remember it was the first time I saw something and felt some kind of responsibility to record some reaction to it.”
Thankfulness is a moment of reflection. It may come as inspiration or may come as a sense of obligation. In either case, it makes visible that which already occurred. A landscape painting depicts a scene others bypassed, but which the artist paused alongside long enough to let it affect him or her, prompting a response. The artist makes a concrete newness out of it. One who is grateful does the same. Not only did the experience occur, says the grateful person, it is one worth remembering, reflecting on, celebrating, making its goodness visible to others.
Psychology lauds gratitude’s benefits: gratitude reduces stress, depression and anxiety. It improves sleep quality and supports overall well-being and happiness. A thankful brain releases dopamine and serotonin. However, as a Catholic Christian, gratitude is more than this. The Catholic liturgy includes the Eucharistic prayer: It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere, to give you thanks and praise, Lord, Holy Father, almighty and eternal God. Gratitude is the proper expression of giving thanks to God, the giver of all good things. God desires our psychological well-being, but more so, he desires our salvation. Giving thanks is both our duty and what saves us.
Every day for a year, a friend of mine took a photograph of something she was grateful for and posted it to her Facebook page. Included in the caption for the photos was the phrase, “What a Beautiful Day God has made!” When I asked her about this, she told me that she was going through a difficult time and had read that the more you pause in gratitude, the more that state of mind lingers. Gratitude promotes happiness, and happier people make healthier choices. By posting on Facebook, she created accountability for herself. If she forgot to post, people would notice and message her. She created for herself a habit of gratitude; she made it a duty.
Sometimes I picture emotions as wispy things, like colors that ebb and flow in the sky — and sometimes they are. But sometimes they are choices fostered by daily practice. Gratitude: It’s not a light fluttery thing. It’s a substantive thing. It can be a habit, like flossing your teeth. You can notice something, and you can choose to write it down, say it out loud, thank someone for it — a person, God, both. Like a child knocking on her shin guards — See? There’s something inside these socks, something more substantial — thankfulness is something worth acknowledging and going the distance for. In my experience, up to and including the width of a soccer field.
Erin Buckley lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she works as an occupational therapist. She was formally introduced to Ignatian spirituality during a year spent as a Jesuit Volunteer in Portland, Maine. She appreciates the Examen’s specific prompts. Erin contributes essays to her alma mater’s quarterly, Notre Dame Magazine; besides writing, she enjoys walking and painting — with “AMDG” frequently included in her signature.