Our last installment of multiple posts from Guardini’s classic The Art of Praying. Nothing is more essential to our faith, our health and well being than prayer. Learning to pray is one of the great challenges of our being Catholic.
Another recommendation from a good review: “I also found Guardini’s lack of romanticism very refreshing. No platitudes about mystical union and the like, but the simple and practical advice that I would expect from my priest: Prayer is real work, you likely won’t want to do it often, its purpose is not to produce an emotional state within you, get over yourself, you are not alone when you say your prayers, your whole life can become living prayer and here is how you can do it. Just right. Very honest.
While not really a “how to” book, Guardini’s observations feel to me like the description of a beautiful and rugged journey that I am trying to take, but have yet to progress too far in. But with his descriptions, I have a better map of where I am going, how I can get there, what I can expect as I go and where not to go…”
Spend some time payingattentiontothesky this week with one of the great masters of Catholic Life.
Thanksgiving is Due to God Unceasingly
As soon as prayer is answered it becomes thanksgiving. It comes naturally from the heart; it is man’s response to God’s grace. We should give thanks not only when a wish has been granted but at all times. Unceasingly the heart of man should respond to the dispensations of Divine Providence. This response consists in man being aware that everything he is and everything that happens to him comes from God and that he should acknowledge and be thankful for it.
The Apostle Paul says: “And be ye thankful … singing in grace in your hearts to God. All whatsoever you do in word or in work, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him. [Co1ossians 3:15-17]
The seriousness of the offense of forgetting to give thanks is brought out in the story of the ten lepers, of whom only one, a Samaritan, returned to give thanks.
And it came to pass, as He was going to Jerusalem, He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. And as He entered into a certain town, there met Him ten men that were lepers, who stood afar off; and lifted up their voice, saying: “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” Whom when He saw, He said: “Go, shew yourselves to the priests.” And it came to pass, as they went, they were made clean. And one of them, when he saw that he was made clean, went back, with a loud voice glorifying God. And he fell on his face before His feet, giving thanks: and this was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering, said: “Were not ten made clean? And where are the nine? There is no one found to return and give glory to God, but this stranger.” And he said to him: “Arise, go thy way; for thy faith hath made thee whole. [Luke 17:11-19]
This is a cry of sorrow from the divine heart, similar to the one so often uttered through the mouth of the prophets when the people forgot to give thanks to the Lord who had bestowed so much on them.
Gratitude is Due for Gifts Freely Given
For things which happen by necessity we cannot give thanks. If we know the laws of nature and infer that certain causes will produce certain effects, we cannot feel gratitude, however beneficent these effects may be for us: they were bound to happen. In the same manner, we cannot experience true gratitude when we have sold some goods and received the correct payment for them. We receive this payment by right. Only when we receive something freely, without necessity or legal obligation on the part of the giver, do we spontaneously experience that intimate feeling which we express in the words “I thank you.”
Existence Must Not Be Taken For Granted
It is important that we should recognize — not only with our mind but with our heart — that nothing in life can be taken for granted. In a restricted sense, as we have just seen, certain natural events must be taken for granted, but this is true only when seen from a standpoint which does not take in life as a whole. We live in the world from which we draw the substances and energies to sustain our existence; we are linked to it by innumerable threads of cause and effect.
We therefore take it for granted, never stopping to think that it might well be otherwise, that this world, which appears to us the basis of everything, might not exist. It is an irreligious attitude to take the world for granted. Although in fact it does exist, there is no reason why it should. The world is not necessary; it exists because God willed it. At this point, there is no causation, only pure sovereign freedom.
The world has emerged out of the freedom of God, and His freedom is love; because it is love we can respond to it by gratitude. It is therefore meet, just, and appropriate to give thanks to God for having created the world.
Nor ought I, as an individual, regard it as a matter of course that I should exist. I happen to find myself in this world, and in this body and mind of mine. In consequence, I take myself and my existence for granted, more so even than that of the world. It appears to me the precondition for everything else. Yet I know that I might equally well not exist. To take a thing for granted means “to accept it as a given fact.”
Things Exist Only by God’s Grace
There is a deep double meaning in “to accept it as a given fact.” On the one hand, it stands for “that which happens to be there” and is, by virtue of it, the precondition for everything else; on the other hand, it acknowledges in the word given that it is there neither by necessity nor by right, but by grace.
It is therefore proper that I should know and acknowledge in my heart that I constantly receive myself as a free gift from the hand of God. By the word grace we usually mean everything we receive from God by way of help, enlightenment, and sanctification, as opposed to those things — good or bad — that arise out of the potentialities inherent in conditions and people. Thus we oppose the concept grace to the concept nature. However, we can use the term grace in a much wider sense to include the origin of everything which does not exist by necessity but as God’s free gift.
Thanksgiving is Due for All Of Creation
This term includes the world as a whole, humanity, myself – in fact everything which exists except God Himself. Everything we take for granted is truly granted by Him, the all-giving. There are moments when we suddenly and directly apprehend the incomprehensible, overwhelming fact that we are.
Despite the tribulations and burdens of life it still remains a great grace and wonder that we are allowed to breathe, to feel, to think, to love, and to act — in short, to live. And that things exist: the jug on the table, the tree in the field, the landscape around us, and the sun in the sky; and that other people also exist: this person whom I love, that other one who is in my care. In those moments one realizes that nothing can be taken for granted; that everything has the hallmark of free gift and of grace; that one must give thanks for everything — and even that one must give thanks for being able to give thanks.
We have just said that we should not take it for granted that other people are. When our higher consciousness is asleep — as it mostly is — we do take their existence for granted. During the rare moments when we are fully awake we get a glimpse of the truth.
Human relationships that matter are of two kinds. One kind arises from an encounter: someone has entered into our life, from somewhere. It is always from somewhere — from somewhere unknown. For however much we know about the reasons and the immediate circumstances which lead to the meeting, how much do we really know of the roots of existence even of those whom we know best?
We have met, and out of this meeting something has developed which we call fellowship, friendship, or love, as the case may be. This is endowed with profound significance; for when it has come about, we feel it could not have been otherwise. Yet it might well have been otherwise; it might never have happened at all.
The other kind of relationship is rooted in life itself. The child springs from the life of the parents, and for this reason it is intimately connected with them and with its brothers and sisters. Their solidarity is not brought about by extraneous circumstances but by innate necessity — or so, at least, it would appear. But is it really so?
Father, mother, and child; brother and sister — each one of them is an individual, a person, and therefore free. For this reason, not even blood relationship should be taken for granted. Its true significance can be realized only in the light of this individual freedom.
Once this is understood, blood relationships become as reassuring, and at the same time as wonderful and given, as relationships that spring from encounters. It follows that we must give thanks also for the givenness of our parents, of our brothers and sisters, and of our children.
Thanksgiving is Due for the Myriad Events Of Life
The same holds good for everything that happens in life. Natural science, the administrators, planners, and all those other experts concerned with directing human affairs have taught us to judge everything from the point of view of ascertainable laws. We are therefore conditioned to believe that things happen either because it is in their very nature that they should happen or in accordance with conditions laid down for them by man. In this way life is systematically robbed of its mystery and as a result we are disenchanted.
Many people feel that it is wrong to think in these terms, not only because it deprives life of so much of its beauty but also because it is fundamentally untrue. There are indeed moments –rare moments of illumination — when the most ordinary objects and commonplace events appear to us suddenly quite different. All at once they shed the shackles of arid matter-of-factness and become free; once free, they step out of the prison of contingent existence to enter the realm of mystery. In such moments we realize that they form part of that hidden pattern of which natural laws and human planning are but the visible projection.
We may express this in a different way: all cosmic processes, all phenomena and events to which our sensory perception and intellect give us access, occur within a system of laws — the very same laws to which perception and intellect are themselves subjected. But the system, as such, is but an instrument in the hand of God’s creative freedom; at the same time it is an expression and proof of the consistency with which this freedom works.
Thus everything that happens, and everything which is, has the character of a gift of grace — and must be included in our thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is due for God’s Providence
When discussing petition in prayer, we found that fundamentally our demands are not concerned with the necessities of life or with help in distress, but with everything that comes to us from the divine superabundance through which we have our being. Our existence is encompassed by a double arc, one part of which ascends from us to God and the other — the more important – descends from God to us. Prayer is the continuous call by man for the descending arc, and thanksgiving is the completion of the arc from man to God.
Man says to God: “I thank Thee, O Lord, that I have my being in and through Thee; I thank Thee that I see with Thy light, act through Thy power, and am sanctified by Thy love.”
Our relations to our fellows, to all things, and to all events obtain their true significance from our relationship to God. People, things, and events come to us as parts and aspects of the same world to which we also belong, but they are also messengers and manifestations of the loving governance of God.
That divine governance may prevail and the will of God be done is the real prayer of the Christian. His thanks consist in accepting life, with ever growing awareness, as God’s gift.
Thanksgiving is Due for God’s Existence
There is an attitude of mind which confers on thanksgiving a truly exalted, almost divine character: when man thanks and praises God for His glory and for His very being. But how is this possible? Have we not just said that we can give thanks only for what we receive neither by necessity nor by right? What can be more necessary in this sense than the existence of God, of whom it is said that He is by His very existence “worthy … to receive glory, and honor, and power: because Thou hast created all things; and for Thy will they were and have been created. [Revelations 4:11]
Yet even God’s existence cannot be taken for granted, although not in the sense in which the existence of the world cannot be taken for granted. The world is because it has pleased God to create it. God is because He is the mystery in itself, the living substantial miracle.
In its original, proper sense, mystery does not signify something unexplained which requires, or indeed is capable of, explanation; it signifies that which pertains to the nature of the Deity. Miracle is not in the first place a phenomenon or occurrence which goes beyond the possibilities of known laws; it is a sign from God — a state of transfiguration in which the most ordinary object and commonplace event suddenly shines in the light of God.
Whoever is in the proximity of God experiences His mystery and His all-compelling might and thus knows that he is in the presence of the One who alone is real, substantial, and necessary, the One who calls forth the holy awe in man. From this awe springs thanksgiving.
When we love someone truly — that is, if we feel not merely respect, sympathy, or desire, but are linked to him or her by that bond of inmost belonging — we are filled with a sense of constant wonderment, almost awe toward the beloved person. It may reach a degree of intensity which makes us want to explain it: “I thank you for being as you are; I thank you for being.” Such things cannot be rationally explained, but the heart understands them. With man this mystery can be no more than an intimation; with God it finds its full consummation.
Thanksgiving Is Due Constantly
It is therefore of the utmost importance that we should learn to give thanks. We must do away with the indifference which takes all things for granted, for nothing is to be taken for granted – everything is a gift. Not until man has understood this will he truly be free.
In the morning, when we are rested from the night and are filled with a pure and exhilarating feeling of life, we should say to God: “I thank Thee that I am permitted to live; I thank Thee that I breathe and that I am; and I thank Thee for all I have and for all that is around me.” After meals we should say: “What I have partaken of is Thy gift; I thank Thee.” In the evening we should say: “That I was permitted to live today; to work, to rejoice; that I met this person; that I became aware of that other person’s loyalty — all that Thou hast given me; for all that I thank Thee.”
We should give thanks for our faith, for the mystery of our rebirth in Christ, for all the hidden and holy bonds between the Creator and ourselves. We should endeavor to extend our thanks to include also all that which is difficult, hard, or incomprehensible in our lives: it is all part of grace. That it should be so is the one aspect of the message of Providence which is for us the most difficult to understand, and demands of us the greatest fortitude – but it is also the one which holds the greatest promise.
To live in harmony with Providence means to live in obedience to the will of God — also against one’s own desires. This submission finds its purest expression in the gratitude which gladly accepts hardship and what appears to be injury from the hands of God. This is not easy and we should not deceive ourselves. We should never go beyond what our sense of truthfulness will permit. But we are capable of greater things than we think at first. Sustained by faith, thanksgiving can extend to tribulations and, in the measure in which it succeeds, it will transform them.