The standard Catholic mass liturgy includes a call-and-response section where the priest says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” and the congregation responds, “It is right and just.” The priest goes on to say, “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give thanks.” Ever since first hearing those words, I have been struck by the notion that giving thanks might involve a kind of salvation. The other descriptors in the litany, about giving thanks being a duty, being right, being just: those all seem self-evident. My parents, like most parents, taught me early on that it was right, even dutiful, to say “thank you” whenever someone gave me something or did something nice for me. As I got older, I could also sense how that exchange might be just in some way, a sort of balancing in which a gift or a kindness is reciprocated with an expression that acknowledges and appreciates it. I give to you, you thank me, and everything is in place.
But that gratitude could be saving in some fashion puzzled me, until I began to take it up as a spiritual practice, having the discipline of including time at the end of each day to notice at least three things, or experiences, or moments in the day that I could be grateful for. What began to unfold over time, with that little practice, was a mysterious opening of myself: gratitude showed up in other parts of my day, not just in the time committed to the practice of being grateful, and the list of things to be grateful lengthened. I could see that even on especially dispiriting days, there would invariably be some person, some glimpse of the natural world through my car windows as I drove, some snatch of music overheard, some Facebook photo, some words in a book I was reading, something, someone, somewhere, that lifted me, however briefly, out of the small circle of self-preoccupation. And that lift, when I was no longer knotted up in ego concerns, saved me. I was saved from the illusion of being alone, of trying to control what could not be controlled, from being afraid, when an expression of gratitude refocused me on the larger world outside myself.
Parents who teach us to say thank you are right, and saying thank you is our duty as decent people living in community. Saying thank you—to another person, to God, to nature, to the mystery in which we live—also will save us, even when nothing else can.