Wednesday 7 July 2021

Give thanks in and for everything

In his book A serious call to the Devout Life, the seventeenth century Anglican divine, William Law wrote:

Would you know who is the greatest saint in the world? It is not he who prays most or fasts most, it is not he who gives most alms or is most eminent for temperance, chastity or justice; but it is he who is always thankful to God, who wills everything that God wills, who receives everything as an instance of God’s goodness and has a heart always ready to praise God for it. All prayer and devotion, fasting stand repentance, meditation and retirement, all sacraments... are so many means to render the soul conformable to the will of God and to fill it with thankfulness and praise for everything that comes from God.

If we examine the lives of our favourite saints, we would doubtless find this to be so. Certainly we can find them praising God in all circumstances, turning calamities into blessings and keeping their eyes fixed firmly on Christ.

In the Liturgy we are often reminded of our need (our duty and our joy!) to give thanks to God ‘at all times and in all places’. This we know can prove to be exceedingly hard to do, because when things are going well, like the nine lepers, we simply forget to turn back to express our gratitude, and when things are going badly, we honestly don’t much feel like offering praise and thanksgiving.

Meister Eckhart counted praise and thanksgiving (in any circumstance!) as one of the hallmarks of a truly Christian life. But when disaster strikes, it is not the first thing we think of doing. Quite often, we simply rail at the Lord and ask, ‘Why me?’, ignoring the possible response: ‘Why not?’ 

Perhaps we can discern a distinction between praising and giving thanks to God IN all things and giving thanks FOR all things. I’m not sure we can really say thanks for cancer, redundancy, or domestic upheaval, but can we not, perhaps, continue to praise (or try to praise) God in these circumstances? Hugely challenging, I know, and we may fall far short in our efforts to do this. But the important thing is to offer God our praise in and for the circumstances. We are not praising the circumstances themselves, which may, or may not, be worthy of praise.

I said in a previous reflection that it was St Paul who urges us to give thanks in and for everything. The idea is totally in tune with what we know of his life. One example is found in Acts 16:23–25, when he and Silas were thrown into gaol at Philippi. Luke tells us how at midnight, their wounds smarting after a severe beating, the two men sang out the praise of the Lord.

When we are passing through testing times, it is often hard to see how praising and thanking God in that situation is going to bring about any good. Still, we offer those prayers in the power of faith and in doing so, we are placing the whole situation in the hands of God — and consequently the best hands — laying ourselves open to the outpouring of grace. The thought that we might perhaps have to wait years until heaven, to see our faith vindicated, may not seem much of a comfort to us, but the alternative is either to rage and rail, or to sink into a dejected silence of self-pity. I think the way of the saints is preferable to either of those: to offer up cheerful and loving prayer of praise and thanksgiving. It may take every ounce of strength and faith we have, but we will have achieved something by way of giving glory to God.