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: The Vatican’s Choice: Jimmy Lai or Xi Jinping?

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

In mid-May, Chinese leader Xi Jinping unveiled a plan to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and impose draconian new “national security” laws on the former British colony. Putatively intended to defend Hong Kong from “secessionists,” “terrorists,” and “foreign influence,” these new measures are in fact designed to curb the brave men and women of Hong Kong’s vibrant pro-democracy movement, who have been aggravating the Beijing totalitarians for a long time. With the world distracted by the Wuhan virus (which the Chinese government’s clumsiness and prevarication did much to globalize), the ever-more-brutal Xi Jinping regime evidently thinks that this is the moment to crack down even harder on those in Hong Kong who cherish freedom and try to defend it.

This latest display of Beijing’s intent to enforce communist power in Hong Kong coincides with the most recent persecution of my friend, Jimmy Lai.

Jimmy and I have only met once. But I have long felt a kinship with this fellow-Catholic, a convert who first put his considerable wealth to work in support of important Catholic activities and who is now risking all in support of the pro-democracy movement in Kong Kong. Arrested in February, and then again in April, Jimmy Lai has been charged with helping organize and lead “unauthorized protests.” That he was in the front ranks of pro-democracy demonstrations is true. The question is, why do the Chinese communists regard peaceful protest in support of freedoms Beijing solemnly promised to protect as treasonous?

In late May, the thugs in Beijing tightened the ratchet of repression another notch: Jimmy Lai’s case was transferred to a court that could give the 72-year old a five-year sentence, or even consecutive sentences. But what else could be expected from a regime that was already trying to bankrupt Lai’s pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, by pressuring both Chinese and international firms to stop buying advertising space there? Shamefully, far too many have kowtowed to those pressures, and a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed article reported that Apple Daily is now cut off from 65% of the Hong Kong advertising market. Meanwhile, Beijing, while trying to reassure the business community that everything will be just fine, warns business leaders (as well as diplomats and journalists) not to “join the anti-China forces in stigmatizing or demonizing” the new national security laws.

The Xi Jinping regime may be less stable than it wants the world to think it is. Secure regimes do not increase repression, as Beijing has done for several years now. Moreover, labeling all criticism of the Xi Jinping government as “anti-China” is not the play a regime confident about its legitimacy and stability would make. Such tactics seem clumsy; they bespeak sweaty nervousness, not calm self-assurance.

The attempt to break the Hong Kong democracy movement is one facet of a broader campaign of repression that has not spared Chinese religious communities on the mainland. One million Muslim Uyghurs remain penned in Xinjiang concentration camps, where they are being “educated.” Protestant house churches are under constant threat. And repressive measures continue to be taken against Catholics and their churches, despite the almost two-year old (and still secret) agreement between the Holy See and Beijing. That agreement, which gave the Chinese communist party a lead role in the nomination of bishops, looks ever more like one in which the Vatican gave away a great deal in return for hollow promises; Chinese Catholics who do not toe the party line as the Chinese communist party defines that line are still persecuted. The effects of this sorry affair on the Church’s evangelical mission in the China of the future – hopefully, a post-communist China – will not be positive.

Around the world, voices have been raised in support of Hong Kong’s brave pro-democracy demonstrators. Has the Holy See’s voice been heard? If so, I missed it and so did many others. Are strong representations in favor of religious freedom and other basic human rights being made by Vatican officials behind the scenes in Beijing and Rome? One might hope so. But if the Holy See’s current China policy is in fact a reprise of its failed Ostpolitik in central and eastern Europe during the 1970s, those representations are more likely tepid and wholly ineffectual.

With one of its most courageous Catholic sons now in the dock and facing what could be life-threatening imprisonment, the Vatican now faces a defining choice: Jimmy Lai or Xi Jinping?