This one daily practice can transform you both spiritually and mentally

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: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”