This one daily practice can transform you both spiritually and mentally

Therese Bussen

The Thanksgiving season is usually when we more intentionally think about gratitude — but it often ends with the holiday. While it’s good to remember what we’re thankful for during this this time of year, it’s actually something that that has the potential to change our lives if made into a daily practice, and benefits us both spiritually and psychologically.

So what is gratitude and how can we make it a daily habit?

According to Father Daniel Cardó, pastor at Holy Name Parish, gratitude is much more than just saying thanks — it’s an attitude of the heart.

“Gratitude is an essential disposition because it’s about how we understand life, ourselves, everything,” Father Cardó said. “We can all think of things we didn’t expect that were a gift to us. That surprise is a very profound experience of letting love move our hearts, of truly receiving what is happening. And that is the first step of responding.”

“A good way to be grateful is to be simple, [to remember] that there is a good in what we’re receiving and in the fact that we’re receiving,” he continued. “We can go beyond the gift and think about why we’re given gifts.”

As we practice gratitude, it changes the way we see God, ourselves and others and makes us more aware of how everything in our life is a gift, Father Cardó said.

“Gratitude comes from the way we see God, ourselves and others. If we’re too self-centered, we think everything’s our right,” he explained. “The more we grow in gratitude, the more we see God as a Father and others as our brothers and sisters who, as ourselves, have received everything as a gift. We have to see ourselves as a gift, that’s important.”

Another benefit of gratitude is a shift in perspective when suffering comes our way — instead of despairing, we see that somehow, good still comes during and after difficult times.

“If we’re grateful, we’ll not complain or be scandalized when we suffer. It was good for Job to go through suffering because it made him more grateful,” Father Cardó said. “In Christ, we know he doesn’t send evil, but we know he allows good to come from it when we’re suffering.

“One of the reasons St. Augustine says we don’t have our prayers answered is to expand our desire and grow more,” he continued. “Why are we so scandalized when we suffer? Something amazing happens at one point in Job’s story, and I’m paraphrasing, but he complains at first, but then he said, ‘I knew you only through hearsay but now I see you with my eyes.’”

Changing mental habits

Gratitude doesn’t just benefit us spiritually — it also has huge benefits on our mental health and shifts our attitude toward life psychologically.

“We know spiritually we should be grateful to God, but one of the main benefits psychologically is that being grateful helps us put ourselves in the shoes of another person, that something has been given to us. It makes us realize it’s not all up to us,” said Dr. Jim Langley, psychologist at St. Raphael’s Counseling in Littleton. “Research shows a lot of psychological benefits: People feel less anxiety, less selfish, show less aggression and are more empathetic. When we recognize a gift has been given to us, it makes us more likely to give back to others.”

Dr. Langley pointed out that the human brain is wired to notice more negativity, so the daily practice of noticing good helps us wire ourselves toward positivity.
“Research shows taking a moment to notice the goods in our lives that are small…and being grateful for little things calls us to be more aware of all of the good,” he said.

But starting a gratitude practice from scratch can feel “fake” or “forced” — until the new habit is formed, according to Dr. Langley.

“A new habit always feels forced and fake. The way our brains work is like [having paved] roads. Starting a new habit is like paving a new road and it’s hard and uncomfortable, and then after 30 days it feels normal and natural,” he said. “So you have to fight through that unnaturalness. Once you get over that, it’s part of who you are.”

How to practice it

So how does one practice gratitude daily? Dr. Langley and Father Cardó offered a few simple, helpful tips.

“At the start or end of the day, taking note of the good that’s been done, big things and little things,” Dr. Langley said. “The Examen [a prayer method developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola] is a great one.”

The Examen is a simple prayer with five steps: Asking God for light of understanding, giving thanks, reviewing the day as guided by the Holy Spirit, facing our shortcomings and looking forward to the day to come.

He also recommended intentionally being aware of ways that loved ones are a gift to us, to tell them and thank them for it.

“It’s very easy to take people for granted, especially in family life. Pointing that out to others can be powerful because we all want someone to notice us, so voicing gratitude to another person is saying, ‘I notice you,’” he added. “Part of our job to fellow Christians is to be Christ to one another — when we point it out for other people, we are being Christ to them.”

Father Cardó recommended simple prayers, including the Examen, to grow in a daily practice of gratitude.

“One practical thing is to say a prayer when we wake up and say thank you to God. Or doing the Examen prayer at night for a few minutes reflecting about our day. You can even do it as a family a few minutes before dinner. Those are two simple things,” he said. “Another thing is during Thanksgiving, find time to think about the greatest gifts of our lives and even to write them down. And to give thanks to God for those gifts and to say thank you to those who are gifts to us, to make a call and say thank you.”

Gratitude isn’t something that’s complicated, Father Cardó said. It’s simple, and when we’re simple, we’re more joyful.

“If we’re grateful, we’re going to be more simple. When we get too complicated or expect too much from people, we eliminate the capacity to be surprised,” he concluded. “The more grateful we are, the more simple, the more joyful we will be. If we’re simple, we know God will give us what we need. He promises to give us what we need. Gratitude makes us receive what we need with joy.”

For an Examen prayer card, visit ignatianspirituality.com/19076/examen-prayer-card.

COMING UP: Q&A: Cardinal Stafford: “The Eucharist has been the center of my life”

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On the dawn of his 60th anniversary of priestly ordination, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, archbishop emeritus of Denver, reflects on the origins and fruits of his vocation. He will celebrate a Mass in thanksgiving with Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 17, at 10:30 a.m.

DC: What were your desires as a young man and how did God call you to the priesthood?            

Cardinal Stafford: Images of God arose very early in my life. From my parents’ encounter with Jesus in the confessional, concrete impressions developed into images. Those images spoke to me of God’s holiness and beauty. I understood that He was great and forgiving.

Reality became complex with more birthdays. The brutality of the 20th century… insinuated itself into my world-view. I was bewildered by the horror of that era… A few years later I also discovered St. Augustine’s joy in reflecting upon the beauty of the Creator of the world in his Confessions… I learned that the love of Christ transforms our unloveliness into God’s beauty.

Both the beauty of the Ancient One and the rub of evil have coexisted in my faith and experience. Jesus’s invitation, “The laborers are few”, resonated in my soul.  The fact that the priestly vocation is totally given over to the “ministry of reconciliation” became the North Star of my life.

Archbishop J. Francis Stafford blesses the altar of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Aurora, Colo. (Photo by Denver Catholic Register)

DC: What practices have helped you remain faithful to your vocation during these 60 years?

Cardinal Stafford: When awakening each morning, I recite a single verse from Psalm 51, “Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Three times it is repeated. Thereafter, the grace of God sets the day on the right track. It becomes a song of praise to God. With hard practice it daily gathers momentum. It places front and center the most beautiful mystery of the Christian faith: The Triune God. The love and beauty of the Most Holy Trinity light up the whole day even when God appears more distant than near.

The psalmist has been a great catechist. He has taught me that human beings are doxological (people of praise) by nature especially in the Dark Night – not only as individuals, but also within community… Doxological prayer has led me to appreciate why St. Augustine wrote, “The goal of all Christian watchfulness and all Christian progress is a pious and sober understanding of the Trinity.”

Cardinal James Stafford holds a relic of St. Teresa of Calcutta during a Mass celebrating her feast day at St. Joseph’s Parish on September 5, 2016, in Denver. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

DC: What have been some of the challenges and highlights of your priesthood?

Cardinal Stafford: The challenges: Christians in Europe and North America are struggling with the “juggernaut” of secularization… Generally, its roots are found in the fact that most Europeans and Americans today find themselves thrust into the universe without any foundation for living. Most imagine themselves in a free-fall through space with unintelligible entrances and exits. The challenge is how to confront this unprecedented reality. The pastoral solutions have seldom been forthcoming.

The highlights of my priesthood: Visiting the home-bound. They are the hidden pillars of every local Church. Beyond the home-bound, I have always felt that Colorado’s response to the invitation to celebrate the 1993 World Youth Day was the measure beyond all measure. In other words, the event was from God… [and] God was delighted with Coloradans.

Pope John Paul II thanks Cardinal Stafford for his leadership in organizing World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. (Photo by Denver Catholic Register)

DC: Who have been your greatest role models and how have they impacted your vocation?

Cardinal Stafford: My mother and father have been my greatest Christian role models. Their love and friendship were life-long and mutual. The two were the best of friends. Their life together, ten years after their marriage, was tested severely… [Tuberculosis] struck [my mother] with extreme severity.

She required prolonged hospitalization that included three major surgical operations over a period of nearly three years. Throughout that time her faith, courage and love remained ever-present signs along the road. My father’s love for his wife never faltered during her hospitalization… His presence to her was reassuring, quiet, and unassuming.  The grace of the sacrament of marriage sustained both of them and was an enormously important witness for me.

Cardinal Stafford celebrates Mass during World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. (Photo by James Baca/Denver Catholic Register)

DC: Reflecting on your priestly experience, what practices are essential to the Catholic priest of the New Evangelization?

Cardinal Stafford: The Eucharist has been the center of my life… Over the years, I learned that priestly celibacy was related to the eschatological nature of the Eucharist.  In 390 AD bishops at the Council of Carthage underlined this connection, “That holy bishops and priests of God…. observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us endeavor to keep.”

I’ve reflected for over four decades over the forthrightness of their statement. I still ask myself why the ancient bishops chose the phrase “in all simplicity.”  Their choice was related to the priest’s acting “in the person of Christ”. That’s Eucharistic and the Eucharist is doxological. Their assertion that clerical celibacy had apostolic origins surprised me.

Finally, a lay friend taught me one of the greatest graces of these sixty years, “Gratitude for the gift is shown only by allowing it to make one fruitful,” from Meister Eckhart. That is my prayer in celebrating my 60th anniversary of priestly ordination.