In this series we will explore practices that can help us to develop a space for grace in our lives. As I explain in my book, Braving the Thin Places, the acronym GRACE can help us if we:
- G—Grow in gratitude
- R—Release regrets to rest and reset
- A—Authentic availability and acceptance
- C—Cultivate radical hospitality
- E—Embrace simplicity
This article will focus on the first practice of GRACE, which is growing in gratitude. Encouraging our students to cultivate an attitude of gratitude can be of tremendous benefit to their spiritual lives. Numerous studies, such as those conducted by Berkeley and scholars such as Robert Emmons and Martin Seligman, indicate the positive benefits of gratitude for all ages, including:
- increased happiness and positive mood
- less likely to experience burnout
- better sleep
- less fatigue
- greater resiliency
- development of patience, humility, and wisdom
While practicing gratitude does not mean that we will stay free from suffering or pain, gratitude reminds us to look for the positive and thank God no matter what storms we weather in life. Gratitude is one of the keys to developing empathy and having compassion—for ourselves and others. All of life is a gift, and when we practice gratitude, we praise God, who is the author of all life.
As catechists, we know that practicing the virtue of gratitude is more than just encouraging children to say, “Thank you.” How might we encourage our students to grow in gratitude? Here are a few ideas.
Speaking blessings, rooted in gratitude, throughout our day reminds us of the goodness that is all around us and within us. But it also reminds us from whom all blessings flow: God! Making the Sign of the Cross is a blessing that we make, sometimes without thinking. Slowing down to focus intentionally on blessing ourselves brings awareness to this ancient practice.
Blessing our faces, our eyes, our hands, and our feet can all be incorporated simply in our classrooms through saying a simple prayer such as the blessing from Psalm 129:8: “The blessing of the LORD be upon you! We bless you in the name of the LORD!” Another opportunity to recognize our blessings is when we hear the phrase, “The Word of the Lord” at Mass. Encourage children to respond with renewed confidence and faith as they respond, “Thanks be to God.”
Reflection and Journaling
Incorporate time to practice intentional gratitude with young people through simple reflection questions, such as:
- Who are you most grateful for at this moment?
- What are you most thankful for today?
- What was the best part of your day?
- Who has been a blessing to you today?
Journaling on such questions can bring positive effects. Give students a “gratitude journal,” and ask them to make a note of all the people, things, and experiences for which they are grateful. Invite young people to share one thing for which they are grateful.
When I taught middle-school students, I quickly learned that they often felt self-conscious speaking aloud in front of their peers. I incorporated a simple technique to encourage them to share their prayers and blessings with each other. I painted two mason jars with chalk paint. One of the jars was marked “prayers,” and the other was marked “blessings.” At the beginning of class, I invited the young people to write what they needed prayer for and what they were thankful for. They then placed their prayers and petitions in the “Prayer Jar” and their notes of gratitude and praise in the “Blessings Jar.” Periodically we incorporated times for blessing and times for other prayers naturally by pulling notes from the jars and reflecting on them together. This simple practice allowed the young people to listen more attentively to the struggles and joys of their peers and pray together as a classroom community.
What rituals, traditions, or practices have helped your students to be more grateful? What practices of gratitude have most sustained you, even in difficult times?