National Catholic Reporter
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Lent 2004 -- Reflection
Issue Date:  April 2, 2004

Overcoming ingratitude


Lent is a time when left-leaning Christians can be tempted by the thought that they have too much. However, such guilt can become an inner cramp that will never loosen us and set us free from the chains of consumerism that hold us captive behind the plastic curtain.

Liberation begins with a sense of gratitude for the grace of being alive. This awareness can begin to transform us at other levels of our being and has social and economic implications.

To say, “I am enough” is to say that, just as I am, with all my strengths and weaknesses, I can make a difference. This is the beginning of a new sense of power.

This is also the beginning of being able to say, “I am good enough,” which is the beginning of liberation from the vague guilt that paralyzes us in the culture of dissatisfaction.

This awareness can also begin to transform us at other levels of our lives so we can begin to say, “I have enough” with a happy and free spirit.

In other words, when we stop taking life for granted and recognize it as a gift that is enough, we are transformed at a deeply spiritual level -- to the point where we start to feel a new sense of power, a renewed hope that we can be liberated from the chains that bind us.

Slowly but surely, the cultural chains that hold us captive will begin to drop. The cycle in which each promise of happiness is accompanied by an even deeper dissatisfaction will be broken.

We in North America are in desperate need for such liberation because we are afflicted with ingratitude. Because we take the basic gift of life for granted, we can assume that our lives are, for better or for worse, what we have made of them. And we cannot look on what we have made and see that it is very good.

This dissatisfaction afflicts the haves and the have-nots and those who have a little and want more.

The very rich may seem to have every reason to be grateful, yet this is not always the case. It may be even more difficult for them to experience the sheer gratuity of being loved for no reason. I remember visiting a very wealthy old aunt who was dying. After I had prayed with her, she reached over for her checkbook and asked me, almost automatically, whether I could use some money for one of my causes.

“No, I don’t want any money,” I responded -- even to my own surprise. “I just came to see you and to be with you.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I never know, you see, if someone is coming to see me just for myself,” she said, “or for my money.” This gave me some insight into Jesus’ remarks about how difficult it would be for the rich to enter the kingdom of God where love reigned, as difficult as it would be for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Very few love the rich for no reason, without self-interest, for free. The rich hear words of gratitude, but they sound empty and ingratiating.

The difficulty the rich have in experiencing the gratuity of God’s love may help explain the contemporary theological maxim about the preferential option for the poor. I cannot imagine this means that God loves the poor more than the rich or the middle class. Such a qualification and quantification of God’s love seems to restrict the mystery of God’s love -- which is both all-encompassing and particular with each person.

Nevertheless, it is just possible that the poor may have a special awareness of the sheer gratuity of God’s love because they have fewer illusions that they can earn it or that they can buy the affection and care of others.

For the truly destitute, it is much more difficult to be grateful. As I have learned from my years of living with refugees, when one’s entire existence hangs on the possibility of getting food or when generations of poverty have scarred not only the body but also the mind and the spirit, gratitude does not come easily. The destitute do have reason to wonder whether one can get something for nothing.

In other words, there are certain economic conditions that make it more difficult to experience the sheer gratuity of God’s love. Not impossible, just much more difficult.

The restless striving that has earned them a place in the middle class afflicts those who neither have too much nor too little. By meeting the demands of becoming qualified and through personal sacrifice, they have internalized a sense that you can’t get something for nothing. Having worked their way into an identity, they cannot imagine how the best things in life could possibly be for free and forever. Having neither too much nor too little, they can still remain dissatisfied with themselves.

Ingratitude is ingrained within every social class within the culture of money. It is how sin takes shape within us, conditions us and holds us captive in many and various ways.

Ingratitude lies at the root of our difficulty in loving God beyond guilt, in doing justice beyond guilt, in loving others freely. It makes it more difficult to imagine a world in which it would be a little easier to be grateful.

Mary Jo Leddy is the author of Radical Gratitude (Orbis). Her series of Lenten reflections appears on

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 2004

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