Gratitude is at the heart of prayer and thus is central to Ignatian spirituality.
For example, in praying the Examen, I begin with placing myself in God’s presence and offering gratitude to God. By starting with gratitude, I allow God’s generosity to frame everything else about which I am going to pray. Perhaps in the Examen, I will be looking at where I experienced kindness from a friend, where I was generous with a student, or where I fell short of generosity. When I begin with gratitude, I consider these things in light of gratitude for God’s generous love for me.
This gratitude then affects how I pray the rest of the Examen. If I have failed to be generous somewhere in my day and notice this in my prayer, I will more likely keep in mind that God is kind and wants to listen and encourage me to find how to act differently in the future. When I recollect a heartfelt conversation with a friend, I will more likely remember that my friend’s very existence is a gift from God, and my feelings of gratitude for her are kindled and glow even more. Giving thanks fans the flames of love and consolation, opening our hearts to let God into all our heart’s interior chambers.
Each of the weeks of the Spiritual Exercises is also set in the context of gratitude. In Week One, when praying over my own sins, I am called to notice how God is present to me even in my failures. Then, when we pray the triple colloquy, we are invited to consider the loving presence of Mary, Jesus, and God the Creator surrounding us with care and compassion in how our contrition is received.
In Week Two, we are called to follow Christ and to be partners and friends with him in bringing about the kingdom of heaven. These prayers start with imaginative meditation on the life of Christ. Prayers in which I have imagined Jesus’s nativity or watched Jesus heal and preach naturally lead me almost to overflow with gratitude. I feel gratitude when I imagine holding the Christ Child—how sweet is his newborn scent, how cute are his little fingers and toes, and how precious is his smile as he sleeps. How grateful I may feel in witnessing the tender love that Jesus shows others when he heals them. When we see this kind of love, in prayer or in the world, we naturally feel gratitude. I feel grateful to be asked to be a friend to Christ and to be able to share in his work. Christian love then becomes not a chore, but an expression of gratitude for being able to be here and to partake of this world with Jesus.
Week Three focuses on Jesus’ Passion and emphasizes Jesus’ great love for us in laying down his life. Even when there are tears involved in both recognizing the gravity of suffering and accepting the depth of Christ’s love on the Cross, there is also a plenitude of gratitude. I can recall, for example, moments of tending to Jesus as he prayed in the Garden or how Jesus from the Cross tended to me, even in the midst of his own suffering. The result of allowing ourselves to find love in the midst of suffering is gratitude.
Finally, in Week Four, we will even more easily find gratitude in the Resurrection and love’s triumph over suffering and death. With joy and peace in the risen Christ, we move to the Contemplation to Attain Divine Love, which is a recollection of the many gifts that God has given to me and a return of all those gifts to God. There is a mutual communication between God and me as I do the Exercises and a desire to enact this love in the day to day of my life. This springs from my gratitude to God.
I have come to learn over the course of many experiences of prayer, in many seasons of life, that there is always something for which to be grateful. That does not mean that we must be grateful for the bad things that happen or minimize loss and suffering, but rather that God is there in the midst of whatever we experience. We are never alone and are always guided by a God who is at the very heart of all that we are. For this, we can be thankful, indeed.