Faith & Thought

Using the Word Gratitude In My Centering Prayer

During the pandemic I have read what seems like a countless number of books. I am not even going to try to count them. Besides reading books that I had not previously read, I found myself returning to books that I had previously read and correctly thought deserved a second reading. 

I found myself returning to three theologians who have probably played a greater role in my attempts at living a faith-centered life than any other writers. The three thinkers are Michael Himes, Bernard Cooke and Ronald Rolheiser. 

Himes and Cooke, both deceased, were my close friends and each profoundly influenced my thinking. I have never met Ronald Rolheiser, never even heard him lecture, but I find his books profoundly inspiring. Anyone to whom I have recommended a Rolheiser book seems to share my enthusiasm for his insights. 

I have just finished re-reading Rolheiser’s “Wrestling with God” (New York: Image, 2018, pp. 198, $22.00). 

In one section of his book Rolheiser refers to the Novelist Morris West, a writer whose novels I have used in several adult education courses. Somehow when an author I like refers to another author I like, I feel affirmed. 

I have probably read six or seven West novels. My favorite is “The Devil’s Advocate,” which was dramatized on the stage and as a film. I can still vividly recall the play. It is one of several “Catholic” plays that I have tried over the years to persuade various theater groups to perform, mostly with no success. If there are any parish theater groups in the Diocese of Brooklyn looking for dramas to present I would gladly share my list with them. 

Rolheiser writes the following about West: 

“Around his seventy-fifth birthday, the Australian novelist Morris West wrote a series of autobiographical essays entitled A View from the Ridge. In the prologue, he suggests that at the age of seventy-five you need to have only one word left in your spiritual vocabulary — ‘gratitude’ — and that maturity is attained precisely at that moment when gratitude begins to drown out and cauterize the hurts in your life. As he describes it: ‘Life has served me as it serves everyone, sometimes well and sometimes ill, but I have learned to be grateful for the gift of it, for the love that began it and the other loves with which I have been so richly endowed.’ 

“I agree with West though it is necessary to add that the fruit of that maturity is forgiveness. Just as smoke follows fire, forgiveness follows gratitude. Gratitude ultimately undergirds and fuels all genuine virtue; it is the real basis of holiness and the source of love itself. And its major fruit is forgiveness. When we are grateful we more easily find this strength to forgive.”(pp. 175-176). 

I agree with both West and Rolheiser. I have been doing centering prayer every day for about 40 years. In centering prayer the person praying chooses some word or phrase that has special meaning for the person praying and slowly repeats the word focusing on the presence of God in the center of the person’s being. Gradually the repetition of the word may help the one praying to become very aware of the presence of God and at that moment the person might stop reciting the word and just enjoy God’s presence. 

During the last 40 years I have regularly changed the word I use to help me become more aware of God’s presence while I am doing centering prayer. About 20 years ago I chose the word “gratitude” and used it in my prayer for several months. I can’t remember why I chose the word “gratitude” but it became the word that succinctly and accurately summed up my relationship with God and I believe should sum up everyone’s relationship with God. In relation to God all of creation is the receiver of God’s love. All creation – trees and rivers, planets and stars and universes – are the recipients of God’s love. All creation exists because of God’s love. In our experience we are the only creatures who might be aware of God’s love being showered on us constantly, and the proper response to that love is gratitude. 

During the period of my life when I was using the word “gratitude” in my centering prayer, the word seemed to express the profound relationship with God that we should enjoy. When I changed to a new word it seemed obvious and even logical that I should use the word “eucharist.” A psychologist told me recently that if just before you go to sleep at night you think of three realities in your life for which you are grateful, that thought may greatly influence your experience the next day. I guess I should not have been surprised by that claim. More than any other word, “gratitude” sums up who we are. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.