It is impossible to be grateful and unhappy at the same time! I hesitated to begin with this assertion because my purpose is not to make anyone angry. On the contrary, my hope and prayer is to bring at least a brief oasis of peace into an atmosphere that seems so full of confusion and anger these days. 

Even last Sunday’s Gospel was a particularly frightening and sobering one — in which Jesus himself warns of his coming not to bring peace but the sword and division among families. Ouch! Wasn’t the message of the angels “Peace on earth to people of good will?” Well, maybe that’s the whole point. God does want us to be at peace — but we need the “good will,” or at least the openness of heart to receive it. 

What Jesus says is certainly accurate, historically. Religion has been a source of conflict and division in families, and, even on a global scale, it is so today. Tensions over religious differences were even a factor in the foundational stages of our own country. The prolific sociologist and priest-author Andrew Greeley wrote much, even a book, on the persistence of what he entitled it, “An Ugly Little Truth: Anti-Catholicism in North America.” 

I do not want to open the floodgates to a list of grievances. Today, with the rise in anti-Semitism and recent reports of a deadly attack during a wedding in Kabul, claimed by a local Islamic State affiliate, the specter of incision of hatred and violence into the midst of innocent joy is a graphic reminding of the willfulness of — let’s call it by its real name — Evil. 

Evil wills death and destruction. Its progeny are fear and hatred, the core of terrorism, the planned and programmatic practice of weaponizing this cancerous accretion. 

We have an alternative. The accumulation of anger, fear and hatred can poison a human being’s psyche as well, just as it might affect the local and national sociopolitical climate. It can infest families and neighborhoods, even religious communities. 

What I have noticed is that its seeds are often sown by the discontent that might be called a sense of entitlement or a perceived injustice against the delivery of something expected. The “someone did someone wrong” song that blames parents for every misfortune that befalls their children, or the past for all our present ills, is a recurrent theme in the lives of many who cannot seem to escape from the vicious cycle of resentment.  

Sometimes these grievances do have a factual basis. Our faith does not deny the reality of Original Sin and of the sins of all of us, complicit in the solidarity of sin — let’s not just blame Adam and Eve! — when we cling to our vices. The reality is, however, that there is little we can do to change the past, but we can change how we live in the present. 

So how can we really take control of our lives going forward? The experience of saints and mystics and the received wisdom of almost all of the world’s religion is that an attitude of gratitude drives out these ominous clouds. There seems to be something in the human psyche whereby fear, or its common mask, anger, cannot exist in the same hemisphere. 

Now gratitude is not something that may come easy in the midst of grief and a conviction of wrongful treatment. But before taking on the world and its many injustices, a good place to begin the reform of the world is with myself. As they say in the 12-Step programs, “Let go and let God.” 

Jesus wants us to be free of whatever holds us back and enslaves us in sinful patterns, present or historical. That is why he suffered to the end from all the viciousness the world threw at him for our sakes. As spiritual authors, C.S. Lewis for one, have observed, he took upon himself the punishment that we deserved so that we could have the reward that he deserved. 

Let go of the resentment! And the easiest path is not even to focus on it, but on who and what we can be grateful for. It takes prayer and practice, and it is difficult but not impossible. You can even try it at home! 

Start with the old advice from the Scriptures: do not let the sun go down on your anger (cf. Eph 4: 26-27). A good way to begin in the evening, or just before you go to bed, is to thank God for the blessings of the day. If you cannot locate them mentally for the moment, think of four or five people in your life who, for knowing or having known them, you are better off. Any who are deceased, we can pray for. If such a person is still living, when was the last time we thanked them? 

Often even the best of friends let days, even weeks and months go by, without thanking one another for their loyalty and goodness. Resolve not to let another day go by without a call, a note, or even a text: thanks for just being in my life. 

Another way of cultivating this attitude of gratitude is something all of the mystics know well: mindfulness. We know that Jesus himself fasted and prayed and told us to “pray always.” Prayer is more than just words we say to God. It is a state of being-in-the-world in which we are constantly attentive to what is happening within and around us, a certain awareness or alertness to the occasions and near occasions of grace. God is always trying to reach our hearts. To hear the “voice” of God we make the choice to take the time, as often as we think of it, to listen for that occasion of grace, that sign of God’s blessing. 

Finally, we all have to eat, to indulge that habit we acquired from childhood that we can never really get rid of. It’s a good habit and the ability to eat is itself a gift, when we consider the many who cannot do it so well because of physical or emotional illness. Thank God for every meal, even a snack. If you are with others, family or friends, invite them to join you before just “wolfing it down.”  

Do not be surprised if after a few days of consciously giving thanks, you find your soul more and more at peace, or at least a bit more patient. The central act of our faith, what defines our Catholic identity, is that we are “a people who give thanks.” Eucharist means “to give thanks.” Do our Masses look and feel like celebrations of gratitude to God and all of our good gifts? Something to ponder, but nothing is more welcoming than to be among people who radiate hearts full of thanksgiving.  

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