Fr. Charles Shelton –a Jesuit priest, psychologist, and the author of a new book on gratitude– says that the choice to live gratefully can help to improve virtually every aspect of a person's life.
The multi-talented priest, a professor of psychology at Denver's Regis University, recently published “The Gratitude Factor,” a book that examines the importance of giving thanks for one's work, leisure, relationships, and other everyday experiences of God's grace.
Fr. Shelton has made notable contributions to the field of “positive psychology,” a branch of the social science which studies the cultivation of virtue and well-being. “The Gratitude Factor” combines his work in the field with an emphatic focus on Christian spirituality, in the tradition of St. Ignatius Loyola.
Speaking to CNA on Nov. 20, he explained how the choice to live gratefully, even in the midst of difficulty, could profoundly change one's experience of the world. Gratitude, he said, gives depth to the experience of joy, and profound meaning to less desirable tasks– by “re-framing” both as important aspects of the life that one receives from God.
He stressed that gratitude, for Christians, comes most of all from understanding that “we are God's sons and daughters, and Jesus' brothers and sisters.” That “core experience” is “channeled, through our hearts, into various commitments” that allow believers to share God's gifts to them with others.
“The more we can carve out some time to reflect on that (identity) in our lives,” he offered, “the more rich they become.” He described the fatherhood of God as a “centering point” for Christian gratitude, allowing the entire range of human experiences to be viewed as God-given responsibilities.
Jesus himself, Fr. Shelton observed, was grateful for every aspect of his human life: not only for his family, community and work, but also –as the priest explains in a profound passage of “The Gratitude Factor”– for his suffering and death, which he accepted to give new life to humanity.
While some experiences naturally inspire a feeling of gratitude, others take work, patience and prayer to appreciate. Sometimes the benefit of a situation is completely hidden, requiring the attitude of faith. “Regardless of what happens, I would want to be a grateful person,” Fr. Shelton said. “You could weather anything, and draw from it, if you are grateful.”
But even when it comes to obviously good experiences, Fr. Shelton stressed that gratitude is a virtue that requires attention and effort to develop. His book offers a number of strategies for making thankfulness a part of life, including a “daily gratitude inventory” modeled on the Jesuits' traditional
techniques for recalling God's presence.
Besides making a person aware of God's blessings, Fr. Shelton explained that gratitude helps people appreciate one another. The act of giving thanks, he noted, is always outward-directed. “Because it's always an acknowledgment of someone else, or something else, by definition there has to be an openness (to others) … That's just inherent in what the experience is.”
Since it is oriented toward others, the experience of gratitude can especially deepen bonds with friends and family. “The whole idea of bonding, and community, comes out of gratitude,” he reflected. “We see the gifts of others, we're grateful for the gifts of others, and we all need the gifts of others.”
Fr. Shelton also affirmed that the gratitude-centered holiday of Thanksgiving, while not a liturgical feast in its own right, could offer Catholics in the U.S. a unique chance to prepare themselves for the season of Advent. Modern consumer trends have tended to eclipse that liturgical time, in favor of a “shopping season” filled with anxiety.
But Fr. Shelton noted that Thanksgiving was perfectly timed to help American Catholics rediscover Advent. An authentic Thanksgiving experience of gratitude, he said, could help Catholics begin preparing to receive the surpassing gift of Jesus' arrival, rather than focusing on shopping.
“Studies show (that) people who feel grateful, don't feel the need for as many material possessions,” he noted. “They don't have to fill themselves up” to compensate for a perceived “deficit.” By using Thanksgiving to consider “the gifts God has given … through this year, up to now,” Catholics could more easily embrace “the idea of waiting” that should define Advent.
“It makes sense, psychologically,” he said. “Although this is a secular holiday … it does become, for American Catholics, a fitting end to the liturgical calendar – as we really reflect on what Thanksgiving is.”
Although the Church's solemnity of Christ the King formally closes the liturgical year and signals Advent's beginning, its moveable date always closely coincides with the civic holiday of Thanksgiving. Fr. Shelton reflected that the combination of the national and liturgical celebrations could enrich American Catholics' experience of both.
“Having felt God's gifts,” he said, “we can now prepare ourselves for the greatest gift,” –that of Christ's birth –“which is coming.”