It isn’t easy.
Nothing works out just the way we want. Your best friend is a no-show at your daughter’s wedding. Your boss tells you your job is being eliminated. A thunderstorm hits 30 minutes after you stain the deck in violation of the weather forecast.
Setbacks, big and small, dot our lives.
Nothing seems to go right for Christian conservatives these days. Even less for traditionalists. Plagues, riots, threats of overthrowing the government, unemployment, uncertainty, division all dominate the headlines.
Gratitude is the only response.
Saint Augustine left us a wonderful prayer generally called his Petitions. It is the secret to gratitude.
Lord Jesus, let me know myself; let me know Thee,
And desire nothing but Thee.
Let me hate myself; let me love Thee,
And do everything for the sake of Thee.
Let me humble myself; let me exalt Thee,
And think nothing except Thee.
Let me die to myself; let me live in Thee,
And accept whatever happens as coming from Thee
Let me forget myself and live in Thee,
And ever desire to follow Thee.
Let me fly from myself and take refuge in Thee,
That I may deserve to be defended by Thee.
Let me fear for myself, let me fear Thee,
And let me be among those who are chosen by Thee.
Let me distrust myself; let me trust in Thee,
And be willing to obey for the sake of Thee.
Let me cling to nothing save only to Thee,
And let me be poor because of Thee.
Look upon me, that I may love Thee.
Call me that I may see Thee,
And for ever enjoy Thee.
Emphasis was added, because the prayer pivots on that stanza. Yet, that stanza — “Let me die to myself; let me live in thee | and accept whatever happens as coming from thee” — struggles without its neighbors. When granted, this petition invokes perfect gratitude. But it reveals something more: Humility.
The pagan Stoics also sought this perpetual attitude of gratitude in all things. Marcus Aurelius said something almost identical in his Meditations:
“All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.6
And Epictetus wrote:
“It is easy to praise providence for anything that may happen if you have two qualities: a complete view of what has actually happened in each instance and a sense of gratitude. Without gratitude what is the point of seeing, and without seeing what is the object of gratitude?” — Epictetus, Discourses, 1.6.1–2
Where the pagan Stoics separate from Augustine, though, is in the source of this virtue of gratitude for all things. The Stoics believed man could develop such an attitude himself. Perhaps they could, but most of us can’t. I, for example, can feel annoyance if a planned event unfolds even slightly differently than I imagined it. A drop of rain can ruin my day and my perception of everything that happened that day. In short, I lack the self-control of a Stoic.
Saint Augustine, on the other hand, recognized that humans cannot earn a sense of universal gratitude themselves. Instead, gratitude must be a gift from God. Thus, Augustine asks our Lord and Savior for the grace of accepting whatever happens as coming from Him.
In the end, gratitude is nothing more than love of the God for His condescension of becoming man, suffering and dying for us. Even the pagan Stoics unknowingly provided the eternal answer to the secret of perpetual gratitude.
The Greek word the Stoics used for “gratitude” was εὐχάριστος or eucharistos. The Stoics didn’t know it, but they were talking about The Eucharist, the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.
Another way of putting it: Jesus is the Eucharist, the thanksgiving, both source and object of all gratitude.
We cannot merit salvation ourselves, but we cannot feel gratitude ourselves, either. Left to our devices, we will curse even blessings that fail to meet our disordered expectations.
To live in perpetual gratitude for whatever happens is as simple (and as difficult) as living in Christ. Which is why the entirety of Augustine’s Petitions points towards that end. Gratitude is not a destination but a result of seeking the destination Who is Jesus Christ.
Whatever happens is a cause for and caused by gratitude, for and by εὐχάριστος, for and by eucharistos, for and by Christ.