Gratitude as a Spiritual Practice


The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA
Rev. Anna Woofenden

Gratitude is a funny thing really. We likely can all get on board with the general idea; it’s good to be grateful. This time of Thanksgiving we get prompted all over the place to be “thankful” to “give thanks.” It gets us thinking about it, which is excellent, and then it can invite us in to looking at gratitude more deeply, and looking at what it actually mean in our lives, and how engaging a life of gratitude can actually change us.

I’ve noticed something in myself when it comes to words of gratitude—sometimes it’s authentic and genuine, and sometimes it’s totally a cover up. Cover up for something that’s really hard and painful and I don’t really want to deal with. “Yup, yup, that hard painful thing happened, but I shouldn’t complain, I know I should be grateful for.” Rather than feeling the pain or the sadness, I find myself using words like “I should be grateful” and some other cover up. Maybe you use it to smooth over conversations we need to have, or to brush off acknowledging vulnerability “I’m grateful I’m not that person, or group of people, or life situation.

This time of Thanksgiving gives us the opportunity to explore gratitude, and explore the words we use as we look at our own expressions of gratitude, and commit or recommit to a practice of gratitude.

Because when we actively practice gratitude, things change in us, and around us. Our orientation to the world, how we see people and situations changes, I’m told even our brain chemistry changes. As we actively practice a life of gratitude, we start to notice things differently; we connect with people and the world with more attentive eyes.

In my tradition we talk about how God is always drawing good out of any situation. That God is an expansive, loving, God, a God who values our freedom, a God who does not cause the pain, the broken places, the sadness, these come from our individual and collective actions and choices as a world, but God is always present in all of it, and as the source and force of love and goodness in the world. And that as the Source of this love and goodness, this force is always drawing us to bring healing and hope, reconciliation and goodness out of every situation and in the daily actions of life.

So what if we use Gratitude not as a Band-Aid or a Thanksgiving tag line, but actually a deep spiritual practice.

A deep spiritual practice that taps into God’s goodness ever moving and loving and showing up and surprising us in the world.

And when we are in this spiritual practice, and we all fall and get up again multiple times a day, we might notice that good is, being brought out of the difficult things. We might notice that we stopped long enough to engage another person and something beautiful came out of the connection. We might have a difficult situation come up in our lives and rather than being sure that it’s all helpless, we might open up to there being redemption in it, through the neighbor who shows up to help change the tire, to the emotional muscles that are stretched and exercised when we’re dealing with an illness or the illness of a loved one.

Having a practice of gratitude doesn’t mean that suddenly our lives are all peachy and we never have hard days. And having a practice of gratitude doesn’t mean we don’t pay attention to the pain and brokenness in the world.

No, I think having a practice of gratitude is having a practice of paying attention…paying attention to where love is breaking through, paying attention to where we are called to see differently, to be instruments of compassion, to be curious and to be the vessels by which God infuses more love into the world.

Edwin Arlington Robinson said, “There are two kinds of gratitude:  The sudden kind we feel for what we take; the larger kind we feel for what we give.” 

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we will see our own lives differently, we’ll see the gifts and how we’re being taken care of, in little ways and big. We’ll pause and notice the colors in the sky, the rich flavors of the food in our mouths and the light in each other’s eyes.

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see the people around us differently, we see how we might have not noticed privilege and inequality that we’d been taking for granted, we’ll see the people in front of us, not as other or different, but as fellow-human-beings, all on the path together, hungry for some more love and compassion in the world.

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see the world differently. We see the world not as a place to fear or shirk from, but as a precious human family, with it’s deeply broken and cracked places, and always with flowers urging and pushing to grow out of the cracks.

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we may just find that we are noticing more, noticing the goodness, and noticing where we can be bearers of that goodness, compassion and light.

When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see the face of God.



Prayer on Waking

Part of the Pilgrimage Summer 2013 Series 

One of the projects I was working on throughout the cross-cultural theology class to the UK was to develop some prayers for personal daily practice. These were developed orally, particularly during our time at the Iona Abbey. I’ve written some of them down to share here.

2013-06-09 14.18.18Prayer on Waking

Good morning God!
Breathing in,
O Holy One.

Thank you for rest,
Restoration to your Whole.

 Fill me with Your Light.
Fill me with Your Light.
Fill me with Your Light.

Align me in your presence,
Align me with your purpose,
Align me in your energy,
Align me for your movement this day.


2013-07-13 01.47.38

Traveling Sacred Space

Part of the Pilgrimage Summer 2013 Series

This chair has taught me. It has held me these last two years as I have explored spiritual practice. In this chair, I did my homework for Dr. Carole Spencer’s Spiritual Formation and Personal Practice class. Part of our homework: 1/2 an hour a day of spiritual practice. The Daily Examine; an evening reflection of gratitude and self-examination. Sitting in the silence. Training myself little by little to be still and know God. Reflecting on scripture or sacred texts, and journaling. Each practice done with various degrees of consistency and success. More and more regularly as it slowly moved from “have to” to “get to.”

Spirituality and Peacemaking class with Dr. Lonnie Valentine broadened the definition of “spiritual practice.” I played my guitar, walked and sat in nature, did yoga, wrote, and started painting. This chair where I picked up paints and found a form of prayer.


Next to this chair you would find my craft table. Two stack of plastic tubs, the closet door I took off the hinges, all disguised with fabric, (the magic elixir for a decorator on a budget). This table held my paints and brushes, paper and pens. Ready and waiting for me to sit down in the chair, set the timer and melt into my time set apart.
The time always started with lighting a candle, and breathing a prayer of remembering the sacred at the altar. The altar that shifted and changed with flowers and shells, icon, roaches and art. Always holding the possibility of invitation to sacred space.

This chair. This table. This altar. My sanctuary. This sacred space and time that has become food and lifeline, sanity and gift.

And now it’s time to pack up and move. To leave the chair behind for the next tenants and to pack my large tablets of paper and altar art into boxes. I know it’s not really the physical things that make things sacred. Yet there’s something sacred in that which we dedicate as such. And there’s something that happens when my fingers guide that color-filled brush to the paper, the pencil to the journal page, the sound of the wick bursting into flame.

And so, I’ve been gathering. And when the cloths came down and the boxes sealed, two little pouches were already carefully stowed in my suitcase. My traveling spiritual practice kits.

Ready to be unpacked wherever I am, breathed on, and opened into the container for a time set apart.