I think I first really understood what gratitude is when I lived for several months with the poor in 1992.
On a sabbatical from my work in campus ministry in Ames, I spent six months in the parish of Suchitoto, El Salvador, assisting the work of the Salvadoran pastor and the five US sisters who had served there during the war.
They asked me to help in the farthest region of the parish, a four hour walk from Suchitoto. There I had the blessing to stay with Esteban and Rosa Elbia Clavel who had turned the ruins of cattle stalls into a house for their many children. So that I wouldn’t put anyone out of a bed I brought a hammock to sleep in.
The community was new, mostly of people who had fled the war and had found this land unused and abandoned. Esteban and his family had fled to Honduras during the civil war after he, a delegate of the Word, had received a series of death threats.
The house was small but the family was so open to my presence among them.
Every morning I would awake with Esteban calling on his daughters to get up and walk about 30 minutes to get water. The food was simple – tortillas and beans, often too salty, but it was shared. (I usually brought some vegetables or fruit to share whenever I came.)
The house was adequate but during the rainy season the water seeped under the door and passed under my hammock.
In the midst of this, I woke up many a morning with three words on my lips and engraved in my heart – ¡Gracias a Dios! Thanks be to God!
Some of this, I know, was due to the love I received from the Clavel family as well as from others in the parish.
But it was in the midst of poverty that I really discovered what thanksgiving is – a sense that all is gift, that God is good even though the situation may be horrid, and that all is gift.
I did not need things, nor even an education, to be able to give thanks. All I needed was to recognize the love of God all around me, which I found most in the love of the people I lived and worked with.
Since that time I have had a deeper understanding that our spirituality must begin with gratitude, with giving thanks.
Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of liberation theology, put it well in We Drink from Our Own Wells:
In the final analysis, to believe in God means to live our life as a gift from God and to look upon everything that happens in it as a manifestation of this gift.
All is gift.
All is grace.
¡Gracias a Dios!