I distinctly remember the first time I experienced real gratitude, the kind that goes beyond getting the puppy you always wanted for Christmas or a big fat tax refund. The kind of gratitude I’m talking about is the kind that changes your heart forever.
As I detail in my book, We Need to Talk: God Speaks to a Modern Girl, it happened to me one fateful day in 1991 when I was just beginning to consider a return to the Catholic faith of my childhood. I was “dabbling” around in the Bible, slowing falling in love with the God of the Psalms of David – who I affectionately referred to as “David’s God.” One night, I turned to this tender and loving God and pleaded for my life-long dream of becoming a writer to come true. The prayer was met with a very powerful gut-feeling that I had been heard. It was so powerful, in fact, that it scared me a little and made me wonder if I might be cracking up; but at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling a strange new hope that maybe, just maybe, after 14 years of trying, my dream of getting a novel published was about to come true. Little did I know at the time what was about to happen to me.
July 23rd was a rainy day. I can’t remember much else about it except that it was completely normal. The same get-up-go-to-work-and-come-home kind of day. As usual, I walked in the door, kicked off my shoes and hit the flashing red light on the answering machine.
“Sue? This is Gerry [my literary agent]. Call me as soon as you get this message. Harper Collins just made an offer on your book and I think you should take it. Call me right away.”
For a moment, it was as if my senses disappeared. I couldn’t think, hear, see, feel. All I remember was starting at the wall across the room and saying out loud, “God, I think I see your face.”
I have no idea why I said that. Maybe what I was trying to say was, “I knew you were going to do this! I’ve been waiting for months! I knew you were there! I knew you were for real! You’re real.! You’re real! And you did this for me!”
I collapsed to my knees and knelt there for God only knows how long, gasping, “Oh my God, it really happened!”
And God did it!
That thought made me shoot to my feet, grab the keys and head straight for church. God must have known I was coming because the door wasn’t locked the way it usually was. The minute I stepped into the empty church and looked at the tabernacle, I got those nuclear goose bumps, the ones that run from the top of your head to the tip of your toes and make you feel like you ought to be levitating. This time it was so powerful it made my ears ring and my head feel like it was going to explode.
I was choking and crying now, rushing up the aisle and hoping against all hope that no one would come into the church and make me have to explain all this.
I needed to be with him. Alone.
For the longest time, I sat in a pew and stared at the tabernacle as if seeing it for the first time. God was real. All of this was real. The God, the Church, the angels and saints and devils. All of it. Real.
Oh my God, there IS a God.
“You did this,” I choked out loud. “You made this happen for me! I just know it!” I started to thank Him but the gratitude I felt just then was beyond words. It was more like an internal tsunami of the deepest and most profound gratitude I had ever felt in my life, and it just gushed out of me in one long, keening sound. There were no words to describe how grateful I was. There would never be words to describe it.
“I will love you for this forever.”
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my heart was changed forever. To this day, the mere remembrance of those moments still fills me with such an overwhelming sense of gratitude that it steals my breath away.
Regardless of all the struggles that occur on the surface of my life – grieving as the dementia slowly devours my mother, as my family drifts further and further from the faith, as the culture becomes colder and darker by the day – that single glorious moment of my life remains safely embedded in my heart, unmarred and glittering like a carefully hidden diamond, there to savor anytime I need to remember it.
Saint Mary Euphrasia once said, “Gratitude is the memory of the heart.”
The moral of this story is that (thankfully) not everyone is as thick-headed and stubborn in sin as I was. I needed a much harder smack on the head than the average Catholic. Most people only need to pause and remember the blessings God has favored them with in order to create those priceless memories of the heart.
As St. John Chrysostom once wrote,“the gifts we receive from God greatly exceed the sands on the seashore,” but we don’t always see it that way. Being human, it’s only natural that we would have a clearer sense of what we need over and above what we have received.
“Perhaps this would go some way to explaining why we typically do not appreciate what we have and why our gratitude can be insufficient,” Father Francis Fernandez, author of In Conversation with God, speculates.
Thanksgiving is a day to change all that, to do what I unwittingly did in that fateful moment in the church – confront the reality of God and see not only what He had just given me, but why He gave it.
That’s the moment when real gratitude leaves a mark on the heart that is never forgotten.
May this be your happiest and most heartfelt Thanksgiving of all!
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