Today I want to reflect together with you, dear readers, on gratitude. And do you know why? Because the more grateful a man is, the closer to perfection he is, and that means to God. These wonderful words are from my beloved St. Nikolai Velimirovic. The words of the saint were spoken not for discussion and debate, but for humble fulfillment, for childlike faith in them. And another thought from the holy Serbian hierarch: “In this world, it’s only in human gratitude that your true Divine radiance is acquired.” This was born out of the experience of a life lived in purity, and also because the goal is reached by the saints—the Heavenly Kingdom.
Let me remind you that one of the signs of sanctification is the irreproachable Orthodoxy of the God pleaser, including that which is expressed in his instructions and counsels. In explanation of these words I will bring an example from my personal life. In my youth I was very fond of mountain climbing. Walking through the snow in bright sunlight is very dangerous for the eyes—you can become blind. The instructor said to the newbie: “You need special sunglasses to climb! Without them you can’t.” This was the advice of wise practice to an inexperienced student. Heed it and you will see the incomparable beauty of the mountains; doubt it and you will become blind. The words of the saints on gratitude are derived from many years of experience. Their counsels are steps that ascend to the Heavenly Jerusalem. We must listen closely to the words of the saints.
In everything give thanks to the Lord!—this dictum of the apostle Paul became a New Testament commandment. St. Nikolai Velimirovic based himself on it, pointing the way to Christian perfection. To be perfect is also a commandment; and as holiness is a fruit of Christian labors, it must mature in us. The spiritual life is always movement forward and the development of the best qualities and abilities of a man, including gratitude. We must know about this, and we must want it. The vector of our movement should always point towards Christ, for He is our path to eternal life and an example for emulation.
But earthly life lasts for decades, and we must take the right steps and make the right efforts daily. What to do? The rich young man in the Gospel comes to our aid, asking the Savior the most important question: Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? This young man’s serious question was immediately answered by the only correct response: If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments… Among them is the commandment to be thankful to God. So, we have heard the answer.
The commandments of God are many; their multitude and diversity resemble trails in the forest. You can only walk through the forest on the trails. The path ahead through the bushes and ravines is for wild boars and bears, but not for man. It’s about the same in the Christian life: Moving forward towards Christ is possible only along the “spiritual paths”—the commandments of God. This is the only true and safe way. The holy fathers advise us to choose the commandments that are easiest to perform, which, according to St. Seraphim of Sarov, “help in gathering the greatest spiritual profit.” Gratitude to God is one of these.
Gratitude is born from an attentive life, especially from attention to detail. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much. A bus arriving on time, or a free spot on the metro, and you won’t freeze at the bus stop or spend an entire hour standing in the metro after a service—it’s as if some kind person took care of you, so you could be happy. There are many such small joys and consolations throughout the course of a day. A quiet, sunny morning, good family conditions, a compliment or word of gratitude from someone, a good purchase, or just a cup of aromatic coffee or an abundance of flowers on the streets and in the parks… All of that can’t help but make us joyful. And who gives joy to our souls? We often forget about Him.
Major events are a rare occurrence in our lives: your wedding, a successful operation, buying a house, a promotion, the birth of a son or grandson… People beseech God about such things and so remember Him and give thanks to Him for a while—although not everyone. The small things are different. They are taken for granted and as obvious, and we don’t even notice the small joys and surprises. But we should! And we should remember and feel what God sends us. The main thing is to not be indifferent to the activity of the love of God, but to necessarily react—not just with the mind, but most importantly—with the heart.
Another example: We have a café in our church where I go to eat sometimes. One day, after the service I really wanted to go eat some millet porridge. The chefs make a different kind every day: semolina, rice, oatmeal, buckwheat… But I really wanted millet. I went to the café, and millet kasha was waiting for me. It’s small, but a very important reason to glorify God. He took care of me, and I should thank Him.
In order to practice gratitude to God, we need breaks in this marathon of life. A man is not a hamster in a wheel or a cog in the clockwork. When searching for living people under the rubble of destroyed buildings, the searchers turn off the powerful engines of the construction equipment every ten minutes. In the silence, everyone listens attentively to every rustle and sound. The evening is the best time for reflecting on life—it’s the time of silence and rest, the time for sizing up the day.
Thankfulness to God should come from the heart. God continually looks upon the heart of man from the Heavenly heights, and waits for it to learn to love and become His temple: “My son, give me thine heart, and I will abide in it.” The heart takes a long time to be warmed and softened. It is not possible to speed up this process, thus it’s necessary to muster patience. The human mind is more agile; therefore, we must begin with it: “Give thanks with your mind,” as they say. Remember how we raise little children. They are simply forced to pronounce “the magic words,” hoping that, with time, the child’s heart will get into the work of thanksgiving.
The process of getting to know God in His actions helps the development of heartfelt gratitude. God is good and does only good things. Every man feels it, but doesn’t accept it out of pride, and therefore doesn’t react to it. We must develop the memory of the heart, amassing the invaluable experience of grateful feelings and experiences, carefully preserving it.
In the work of thanksgiving to God, Christians should move from individual cases to the overall picture of life, from everyday trivial matters to the ultimate goal of our existence. For example, we must immediately thank God when we pass a test—go to the nearest church and light a candle or read an Akathist to the Savior. There are no general recipes here, but the principle is clear: Thank God as soon as possible.
But how to interpret the so-called “blows of fate:” a big loss of money, a serious, prolonged disease, the treachery and treason of a good friend, the death of a child?... Here there is one piece of advice—accept the trial with humility and do not grumble at God. And for the very biggest—say through the pain and the tears: “Glory to God for all things!” You don’t need to demand an answer from God: “Why did this grief come into my life?” God has an answer, but man often cannot accept it, because he does not have enough faith and humility. Therefore, sometimes God is silent and waits. Time will pass, and the grief will distance itself from man, and then he can see and understand it correctly. That’s what happens when looking at large objects, like tall buildings. To see them better, you have to walk away from them. For example, I love to look at Christ the Savior Cathedral from Sparrow Hill—from there it can be seen in all its grandeur and beauty.1 But we look at the small things closely, sometimes even with glasses. Let us try to implement this rule in life, so as not to lose our living faith in God in difficult moments, and not cease thanking Him for everything. Let us above all look at the main goal—the salvation of the soul—to correctly understand and accept life with its sorrows and sufferings. By them alone is the soul of man purified from sins, becoming fit for the Heavenly Kingdom. God is not an indifferent observer of our sufferings, but a wise teacher and experienced doctor, knowing His work and awaiting our cooperation in the common work of the soul’s salvation. Let us participate in His providence by humble acceptance and our heartfelt gratitude for everything that happens with us.
Sometimes thanking God even helps our personal egotism. I will explain. Man wants comfort and convenience for himself, but he doesn’t have the possibility of achieving it. They say, “Everyone around me lives as they should, but I am the worst of all.” Here a man immersed in sorrow can grasp at the last straw: To remember God and address Him with the words of his own prayer; and such a prayer is often heard, and the memory of his personal miracle is long preserved in his heart. Usually this deep thankfulness to God for everything resembles the feelings of the healed Samaritan leper. If a man knows how to be grateful, then God will not deny him earthly blessings. It is dangerous to give them to the proud and the clever, but not to the humble and not to the grateful. “Gratitude to God is a hand extended to Him for new blessings,” says great spiritual wisdom.
The time has to come to sum up our conversation. The fruitfulness of spiritual works depends on the precise and proper fulfillment of the Gospel commands. “Less is better”—this dictum is applicable to the Christian life when a man, having chosen one of the Gospel commandments, responsibly and attentively labors over its fulfillment. The commandment to give thanks to God was brought forth as an example. It can promote successful spiritual growth and give the soul the desired grace of God. I’m not saying the other commandments should be neglected—no no! I just wanted to note that sometimes for God, as for us, quality is more important than quantity. “If you chase two hares, you won’t catch either”—we should remember this. If you try to fulfill all the virtues immediately, you will be overloaded and disappointed in Christianity. Recall the story from The Paterikon about a monk who outwardly lived carelessly, but he tried with all his might not to judge anyone. He reached his goal: Angels were there at his repose and announced his blessed fate in eternity. One carefully and prudently fulfilled commandment of God opened the gates of Paradise to this monk. Gratitude to God is a commandment no less important, and its fulfillment is no less fruitful.
I thank God for His aid in writing this article, and you, dear readers, glorify Him if our conversation has proven edifying and useful for you.