The headline of a story in our local diocesan paper reads, “Gratitude: A Moral Obligation.” Where to begin? The church is fond of declaring certain practices obligatory. I am troubled every time I see that word, obligation, imposed in a spiritual setting. Institutional power can oblige us, but by doing so, it cannot compel our hearts.
When I act out of obligation only, I can, sometimes, build a wanted habit. That is not nothing, but it is only an entry-level commitment. It may lay a foundation for deeper commitment, or it may, alternatively, form the basis of resentment and rebellion.
In some ways, acting out of obligation is easier. Just do it. Send the thank you card. Show up for Sunday mass. It does not require any intention beyond the doing. It does nothing in itself to engage the mind and the heart with the act of will. Such acts can be done for show only. Who could tell from the outside? Show up. That’s enough. The obligation appears to be fulfilled.
I want more for myself and for my directees – and for all of us. Gratitude is a good thing. Practicing gratitude can serve us and our communities in myriad ways, turning our attention from not-enough to plenty. When I experience gratitude, it can change me.
Experiencing gratitude, as opposed to making the proper show, requires inner work. I have to wake up and pay attention. I have to listen to my life. Where is there abundance, even in the midst of want? Healing in the midst of hurt? Hope in the midst of struggle? This is a taller order than fulfilling the mandate of obligation. It requires time and effort to sit with these and other such questions and wait for God to move our hearts. Do I experience gratitude or am I simply going through the motions?
Invitation to practice
What are the "ought to's" in your life? In what ways do you act from a sense of obligation? In what ways have these actions helped you to build good habits? In what ways have they created a sense of guilt or of "faking it"?
For what are you grateful? Don't be too quick to answer. Take time to sit with the question and let the answers well up. Where do you experience a deeper sense of gratitude, rather than settling for acknowledging just the things for which you "should" be grateful?