How often does our spiritual life look like an endless list of requests to God, perhaps of very high quality, but in some sense betraying a consumerist relationship! We are as if trying to make God our debtor and don’t notice how much mercy the Lord has already shown us, and that we are forever in debt to Him.
St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov), who wrote so much about the labor of prayer, distinguishes specifically gratitude as being one of the various forms of mental activity: “Thanksgiving to God is part of mental… activity and consists in thanking and giving praise to God for everything that happens—for both the pleasant and the sorrowful.”1 Even sorrow sent down from God, inasmuch as it has some spiritual benefit for a person, is worthy of gratitude.
This activity has been commanded by the Lord Himself through the apostle: In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thess 5:18). Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving (Col. 4:2).
“What does thanksgiving mean? It is laudation of God for His countless blessings poured out upon all mankind and upon each human being. This thanksgiving brings a wondrous peace into the soul; it brings joy, regardless of all the sorrows around us; it brings living faith, for which reason a person rejects all care for himself, tramples upon fear both human and demonic, and consigns himself wholly to God’s will.”2
As St. Ignatius explains, the Lord “commanded us to scrupulously exercise ourselves in thanksgiving to Him, to create a feeling of gratitude for God in ourselves.”3 This should be precisely a feeling, a special inner disposition of soul, created by the action of thanksgiving. This very feeling—unmurmuring gratitude to God for everything—is a superlative preparation for prayer, because it teaches us to relate to God in the proper manner. The feeling of gratitude enlivens prayer itself. The saint reminds us of the words of Scripture: Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Philip 4:4–7).
Ingratitude is the same as unbelief. The ungrateful person does not see the path to salvation upon which the Lord is leading him. It seems to him that everything is happening to him senselessly and accidentally. On the contrary, from thankgiving and praising God, especially in sorrows and sufferings, a living faith is born, and from living faith comes quiet yet mighty patience in Christ. Wherever Christ is felt, there is His consolation.4
The saint explains that true gratitude is born not from self-satisfaction, but from seeing our own weaknesses and seeing God’s mercy for fallen creation. Gratitude to God out of satisfaction with our own lives, as we learn from the parable of the publican and the Pharisee, can mean deep emotional ambition, blinded by temporary comfort. In fact, the very sicknesses that God allows to happen to us can be properly borne only in gratitude for them to God. And gratitude to the Lord is the only weapon capable of defeating any sorrow or bitterness. “The thought of thankfulness to God comes wondrously to the righteous amidst their afflictions. It tears their hearts away from sadness and darkness, and lifts them up to God, to the realm of light and consolation. God always saves those who have recourse to Him with simplicity and faith.”5
But what should we do if we do not have such thankful feelings in our souls, if the soul is frozen by coldness and insensibility? “If your heart does not have thankfulness, then force yourself to thankfulness; along with it, peace will come into your soul.”6 This is how the saint describes this work in Ascetical Experience: “Repetition of the words, ‘Glory to God for all things’, or ‘May God’s will be done’ has a highly satisfactory effect against very serious sorrows. It’s a strange thing! Sometimes the soul loses all strength from the powerful influence of sorrows; the soul as if goes deaf, and loses its ability to feel anything. In these moments I begin to say out loud, forced and mechanically, only with my tongue: ‘Glory be to God’; and hearing praise of God, the soul begins little by little to come alive at this laudation, then is encouraged, feels at peace and is consoled.”7
In one of his letters St. Ignatius suggests the following advice to a person experiencing serious illnesses and sorrows: “I am writing to you because you are in a painful state. I know from experience the difficulty of this situation. The body loses it strength and ability, and along with it the soul loses its strength and ability; the nerves’ distress is imparted to the spirit, because the soul is connected with the body in an unfathomable and very close bond, and therefore the soul and body cannot but act upon each other. I am sending you a spiritual prescription and advise you to take this proposed medicine several times a day, especially in moments of increased suffering both emotional and physical. Renewed strength and healing will not be slow to come… Go were you can be alone, and pronounce slowly and aloud to yourself, keeping your mind within these words (that is what St. John Climacus advises): ‘Glory to Thee our God for the sorrow sent to me; I accept it as what I deserve for my deeds. Remember me in Thy Kingdom’… You will begin to feel that peace is entering into your soul and it destroys the disturbance and perplexity that torments it. The reason for this is clear: The grace and power of God is within praise of God, and not in eloquence and verbosity. Praise and thanksgiving are the work that God Himself taught us to do—it is by no means a human device. The apostle commands this work from the person of God (1 Thess. 5:16).8
In giving thanks to the Lord, the Christian acquires a priceless treasure—grace-filled joy, which fills his heart, and in the light of which one perceives life’s events in a completely different way. Instead of depression the soul is filled with joy, and instead of sorrow and bitterness there is spiritual joy and consolation.
“Let us perform the invisible podvig of thanksgiving to God. This podvig reminds us of God, Whom we have forgotten; this podvig reveals to us God’s grandeur that was hidden from us, it reveals His inexpressible and innumerable benefactions for mankind in general and for each person in particular; this podvig will plant in us a living faith in God; this podvig will give us God, Whom we do not have, Whom our coldness and inattention toward Him has taken away from us. Evil thoughts defile and destroy a person, while holy thoughts illumine and enliven him.”9