For days, I’ve been trying to come up with a topic to write about when I came across a former student’s post on Facebook discussing ways to find gratitude amidst the chaos (thanks, SG!). She was on the right track, for sure, so I pondered over this word “gratitude” for some time. You see, recently I’ve been going through some things in my personal life that have given me many reasons to be stressed out, lose my cool, and want to run away from life. And even the “silver lining” of it all has somehow turned out to be a bust – as I learned that my expectations were maybe not realistic and haven’t been met with as much certainty as I envisioned.
But none of this is reason enough to lose hope or to turn away from God. The reason I know that is because of what I came across when I did a quick Bible search for verses about gratitude. I like to think that there are no coincidences in life. God works his will through us and through our circumstances. Nothing was more evident to me than when I sat down tonight with complete writer’s block and then read the very first verses that I clicked on: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.
This is a passage from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. For those of you that don’t know, or if you’re as confused by the spelling of this word as I am, the Thessalonians were the residents of Thessalonica – a port city in early Macedonia – and the letter was written to a newly-formed Christian community. The Scripture reads: Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
When people say that something “stopped in its tracks,” that’s truly an accurate description of what happened to me when I read this. It was as if God put these verses in front of me for a reason, specifically on this night, to not only help me cope with the circumstances I’m in at the moment, but to validate my efforts in prayer, to give me hope, and to help me show gratitude for the many blessings in my life.
First, I want to talk about rejoicing. How do we rejoice? Well, for starters, we find that which brings us joy. Is it the people in your life? Your career? Your hobbies? Your faith? What is it that gives you the feeling that you want to get up and shout from the rooftops? In my life, this joy takes many forms. Some forms appear more often than others, and they all bring me joy in different ways. My children bring me joy because they make me proud every day. My dog brings me joy when he walks up to me and puts his head under my hand, demands my affection, and gets a big kiss from me on his long nose. My ministry work at St. Pius brings me joy because I get to talk to people about how great God is – every single day, as much as I want. The list goes on. But my point is this: we can all look at our daily lives and find even the smallest of things to be the biggest of blessings.
But what really got me about this passage from Thessalonians is the sentence, “pray without ceasing.” I have to tell you that in the past 100 days I have prayed more than I ever thought possible. And I know that my prayers have been heard. You may wonder how I am so certain. Well, it’s because I’ve shifted the way that I pray. I’ve prayed so often and so hard that it sometimes grows boring and exhausting. God has given me exactly what I need right now in my life – no more and no less. Notice I didn’t say that he’s given me what I want, because he hasn’t. However, he has met my needs in the most appropriate and timely way possible. The trick was to stop asking for what I want and start asking for him to make his will known to me and guide me toward where he wants me to be. During these past 100 days, I’ve gained clarity, achieved a sense of self-confidence I didn’t know I had, and managed to endure heartbreak on multiple fronts with a strength that I had no idea I was capable of. God showed me that if I pray – if I truly and sincerely pray without ceasing – that he will help me and guide me.
What is so significant about 100 days? Oddly enough, I counted back to when my journey began and I found that it’s been exactly 100 days since I traveled to the Holy Land. It was January 21 and after arriving in Tel Aviv our group was immediately transported to the Beit Jamal Monastery and St. Stephen’s Church. It was here that I began my revised prayer life, turning to God and asking him to open my eyes to a better way of doing things. It didn’t hit me all at first. In fact, it took a few days of what I would describe as “perspiring prayers” for me to have that mountaintop experience. At the Church of the Nativity, we made our way very slowly down to the grotto to venerate the place where Jesus was born. In that space and time, I felt my heart go quiet; it was quite remarkable. Following our visit to the grotto, we celebrated Mass in the Church of St. Catherine, and my tears just would not stop. I cried like I hadn’t cried in years, and my face is swollen and red in all of my pictures from that afternoon. What happened after that was the real miracle for me. I spent the rest of the trip on a high, feeling lightened and unburdened. I had the clarity I so desperately desired, my heart and mind were open to new experiences, and I knew that even though there would be obstacles and challenges to come, God would be with me every step of the way.
Since returning from the trip, and for the past few months, things have gone somewhat haywire. Between the global pandemic we’re experiencing right now and my ever-evolving personal dilemmas, it’s been difficult to discern what God’s will is sometimes. My emotions have run the gamut – from extreme joy and a very full heart, to shame, sorrow, and disillusionment. There have been days when I felt really accomplished and calm, and other days when I’ve wanted to duct tape my children up in a closet and hide in my bathroom with a glass (or three) of wine. My biggest obstacle has been to seek God’s will and give thanks in all circumstances, like Paul says, and not just when I’m having a great day. I have had to look at each part of my life and find ways to manage my expectations and re-think the meaning of the term “silver lining.” I’ve spent many hours in prayer asking for God’s will to be done – not just for myself but for others as well – with the full realization that things might not turn out the way I hope or expect. And when they don’t, I know that my reward is in there somewhere, buried deep within. It may be in the form of a fresh start, a renewed sense of self-confidence, a professional accomplishment, developing a new skill, or finding my way back to an old avocation. My trick has been to step out of my comfort zone and to try new things to find where that joy lies, because sometimes we find it in the most unexpected places or through the most unexpected people.
Honestly, I still have no clue what the future holds for me because there are still so many uncertainties in my life right now. It seems that only time will sort them out. However, I am blessed in abundance compared to most, and I have more than enough conviction in my belief that God will not give me more than I can handle. With those two things in mind, my goals are to keep rejoicing in the small treasures of the day-to-day and to pray even harder and more often than I have been. I want to encourage you all to do the same. Stop yourself in the midst of your day and just say a quick prayer. One of my favorite mantras is something that Monsignor taught me long ago. Just say, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done.” Or start with something even shorter like, “Jesus, I trust in you.” When you say grace before a meal, be sure to thank those who prepared it for you – whether it’s a family member or the cook at your favorite restaurant. While you’re out for your third walk of the day, look at your surroundings and thank God for the beauty of nature and creation all around you. And when you lie in bed at night, put your phone or iPad down, shut the television off, and drift off to sleep by praying to God and just telling him your hopes and struggles. That’s what I like to do, and it always gives my head and heart rest to give my problems over to him at the end of a long or difficult day. But whatever you choose – do it with a joyful heart and commit to it, unceasingly. And always remember that God loves you without measure, he has a plan for you, and he will never leave you.