Thanksgiving: Skin-Deep vs. Profound

Nov 23, 2022

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

When it comes to giving thanks, the hard truth is that most Catholics fall into one of two camps – they either forget to give thanks, or their thanksgiving is superficial, only skin-deep and limited.

Rare is the Catholic whose thanksgiving is both complete, with gratitude for all things in his life and profound, rising from the heart, the whole of his being rather than just emanating from his skin, the surface.

In this reflection, we discuss human formation reasons why so often our thanksgiving is rare or superficial and how to move toward a much deeper, richer, and more consistent giving of thanks to God.

A question may arise within you, along the lines of “Dr. Peter, that sounds pretty extreme – profound thanksgiving is rare? Very few are the Catholics who live it — really? I think I’m pretty thankful.”

In response to our skeptical interlocutor’s question, let us examine what kind of thanksgiving God calls us to as Christians, as Catholics. What should thanksgiving look like in our lives?

Scripture, Church teaching, the liturgy and the saints reveal two characteristics of thanksgiving – it should be complete and it should be wholehearted.

God calls us to thanksgiving in every single one of our circumstances – no exceptions

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 224 reads:

[Believing in God] means living in thanksgiving: if God is the only One, everything we are and have comes from him: “What have you that you did not receive?” (cf 1 Corinthians 4:7 ) “What shall I render to the LORD for all his bounty to me?” (Cf. Psalm 116:12) [emphasis added].

According to the Catechism, we are to live in thanksgiving. Not just offer up thanksgiving in our morning prayers, not just to give thanks before meals, not just to appreciate our consolations, not just to utter acts of gratitude periodically, but to live in thanksgiving — as a way of being. American art historian Johannes A. Gaertner captured this idea when he wrote, “To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.”

Some of us offer thanks to God when we experience consolations – when, in our estimation, things are going well, when God is gratifying, when we get what we want. But St. John of Ávila tells us that, “A single ‘Blessed be God’ in adversity is worth more than a thousand acts of thanksgiving in prosperity.”

Prosperity is when many of us forget to offer thanks because of an inward focus, like the nine lepers Jesus cured who did not return to Jesus to offer praise in Luke 17.

But God wants more than intermittent thanks from us when we happen to remember. Much more. The Preface to Eucharistic Prayer II in the Holy Mass opens with “It is truly right and just, our duty and salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Father most holy…” The Eucharist is derived from the Greek word eucharistein which means “to give thanks.” And St. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” [emphasis added],

How often have you considered the implications of such extreme thanksgiving — giving thanks in all circumstances, always and everywhere — as your duty and salvation?

But why? Why should we give thanks in all circumstances? Well, first and foremost, because God commanded it. But we have light here to see – we should give thanks always and everywhere because every circumstance is a gift to us from God. Romans 8:28: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” In all things. Everything that God actively wills or passively permits is perfectly tailored to draw us toward our highest good, if we love Him.

But most of us don’t realize that. We don’t think that way. We see with very limited vision, and we judge circumstances according to how much they appeal to us in the moment, not seeing the good God intends in them for us, even when they cause us pain or discomfort.

God calls us to profound thanksgiving – thanking Him with our whole heart, with all our being

We already know that God wants to be loved by all of us, all our being – that is abundantly clear in the First Great Commandment in Luke 10:27: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” A complete love, every fiber of our being contributing in loving God.

The same is true for thanksgiving. Psalm 9 opens in the first verse with “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all thy wonderful deeds.” This is a call to give thanks with one’s whole heart, the kind of thanks that overflows into action, the telling of the wonder of God’s deeds. A.A. Milne captured a bit of this idea in writing “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”

Due to unresolved trauma, attachment injuries and relational wounds, most of us are significantly fragmented inside, with many internal disconnects among our parts. In the October 12, 2022 weekly reflection titled Why Is Interior Integration Crucial for Union with God?, I laid out the case for the necessity of internal unity in order to love God in union. The same reasoning holds for us to be able to thank God with our whole heart, with all of our being.

When many Catholics offer thanksgiving to God, that thanksgiving come from only a part or parts of them – usually the parts that handle spiritual matters and work on managing the relationship with God. Imagine these spiritual parts as the sailors on the deck of a clipper ship. The rest of the parts are confined below decks, with the hatches nailed shut – these banished sailors are our internal lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, our “undesirable” parts, our lost parts, our spiritual mutineers, our heretical parts, our neglected parts, our outcasts – the parts not deemed fit to be presented to God because of fear He would reject them.

So any prayer of thanksgiving that excludes these parts is incomplete – it can’t be wholehearted, even if it is intense, because so much of the person is left out.

Ways to broaden your thanksgiving

So what are we to do? How can we broaden our thanksgiving?

We can practice thanksgiving more deliberately, and practice thanking God for much more in our lives, broadening out our thanksgiving. Personally, I have been working on thanking God for the PIECES as they are in my life. PIECES is an acronym that stands for:

Persons – my family members, neighbors, coworkers, friends, all the people I am in contact with, and also includes saints, and spiritual beings such as my guardian angel as well as the three Persons of the Trinity

Institutions – My school, the company I work for, the Church, my parish, professional, social and fraternal organizations, etc.

Events – The things that happen in my life, and in the lives of those near to me.

Circumstances – current conditions, conditions, states of affairs and factors in my environment that impact my life and welfare, and the lives and welfare of those around me.

Experiences – what I perceive with my senses, and my internal reactions These include my emotions, thoughts, impulses, desires, attitudes, perceptions, memories, temptations, pain, body sensations, distress, psychological symptoms and any other subjective happenings within my psyche, soul, or body.

Systems – integrated networks of interrelated members who interact in a larger whole, such as my family, my friend groups, social clubs, all of which may not be formal institutions.

We can practice being thankful for any of the PIECES as they are, not as we may want them to be. So if my daughter (a person) is being especially trying on a given day, I can be thankful to God for her as she is and see our interaction as an opportunity to grow in patience and in purer love for her. If I am frustrated by a new policy in my professional organization (an institution), I can thank God for that, and see it as an opportunity to grow in meritorious obedience. If I my car engine blows a head gasket (an event), I can grow in trust that things will work out and that I will find the money to repair or replace it.

The critical thing is to thank God for the PIECES in our lives as they are, right now, in the present. Not what might happen, not what we hope to happen, but to stay in the present as St. Gianna Beretta Molla said: “The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for what He is sending us every day in His goodness.”

Noticing whatever of your PIECES in your life you have great difficult being thankful for is also a clue to the deeper issues you may need to work on.

Ways to deepen your thanksgiving to make it more wholehearted

OK, so we can try harder. That is important, especially for those of us that recognize laziness in our lives.

But for many of us, it won’t be just by doing more of the same thing, just praying harder or broadening our thanksgiving prayer. In addition, let us take a step back and take a bigger perspective. Can we get curious about why we are not more thankful? Can we find out what might be going on below the surface of our consciousness. Can we connect with the parts of us that are below the deck, with their grievances, bitterness, resentment – their ingratitude? That all comes from somewhere, it is not random.

We could approach that ungrateful negativity just as concupiscence to be suppressed or overridden. But so often the resistance is not due to concupiscence. Rather, the ingratitude and all that contributes to it stems from experiences that parts have had – and how those parts have made sense of their experiences, the meaning-making attached to the experiences. A lack of gratitude often results from parts’ negative God images and their disbelief in God’s Providence, their misperceptions of who God actually is, due to their limited perspectives.

I am recommending getting in touch with all your parts, seeing them, hearing them, connecting with them, witnessing their pain, loving them – and bringing them to God for healing. This is the interior integration that St. Thomas Aquinas insisted was essential for a man to love anyone properly – himself, his neighbor, or God. It’s about meeting the five conditions for secure attachment and the five integrity needs that parts have – I covered those in my September 6, 2022 reflection The Top 10 Needs That Fuel Modern-Day Idol Worship. That is a much bigger endeavor that just remembering to say some extra prayers of thanksgiving before you go to bed. It is not just about trying harder, like a hamster on a wheel.

A hard truth

The reality is that there is no “magic bullet” to miraculously integrate your parts – nothing that I can write in a paragraph or two that will unite all your parts within you – no quick tips or tricks to make internal unity happen in a heartbeat. That is just not how it goes. I am giving you everything I can give you to foster internal integration in the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast and in these weekly reflections, but so often, we need to work through these issues with other people, in relationship. You can’t get that from reading a reflection or listening to a podcast episode on your own, generally speaking.

So there are other ways. One traditional way to become more integrated with your parts is therapy or counseling, especially depth therapy or trauma-informed therapy. Some people have found journaling to be helpful integrating their parts. Relational prayers have been so helpful psychologically for so many people. Catholic practices of recollection (sometimes called mindfulness, though that can be a controversial term) can increase insight and awareness. But these means are not the only answer.

There is also the Resilient Catholics Community.

The Resilient Catholics Community

I designed the RCC to bring in the relational aspects, the personal connections, the community part, the accompaniment so that you do not have to do this human formation work on your own. I bring the best of so many fields together, all grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person to help our RCC members build a solid natural foundation for the spiritual life, to overcome the obstacles in the natural realm that keep them from flourishing spiritually in a deep, personal, intimate relationship with God and our Lady. If you resonate with these reflections, if you find the IIC podcast moves your heart, if you really respond to experiential exercises, check out the RCC.

A word of hope

Remember that God is your loving Father – he is pleased with your efforts to become more thankful, however small, awkward, or incomplete they may be. You are his beloved child. So it’s OK to give thanks imperfectly. A good human father embraces the thanksgiving his little son or daughter gives him with delight – so how much more will our heavenly Father cherish our thanksgiving.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother and a Happy Thanksgiving to you,

Dr. Peter

P.S. Our 100th episode of Interior Integration for Catholics recorded live was a great success, despite major technical difficulties. My apologies about the glitches in logging on, especially for those who could not get in. That episode, titled Embracing God’s Love for Me: Experiential Exercise is now available.

P.P.S. At Souls and Hearts, we are celebrating three years of being online! And as we are approaching the, Dr. Gerry and I welcome you to check out the back episodes of Be With the Word, our podcast that explores the psychological and human formation aspects of the Sunday Mass readings. Check out our episode for the First Sunday of Advent titled Believing You Can Change.

P.P.P.S. I want to hear from you. Don’t forget, my conversation hours are every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern time. Call me on my cell at 317.567.9594 if you’d like to touch base about anything in these weekly reflections or in the IIC podcast. It’s not therapy or counseling, but it is a chance for us to connect and share.

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