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Gratitude as a Daily Practice: Case Study

Lukenotes, Winter 2018

Father Tom requested to come to treatment. Nine months earlier his mother had died, leaving him with no direct family. At the time, he immediately felt a significant decline in his mood, almost like he had fallen off a cliff. He told himself this was normal grief, but instead, “normal” just seemed to worsen with time.

He grew concerned when he started lashing out at parishioners and co-workers over even trivial matters, which was highly unusual for him. Fr. Tom took these concerns to confession and tried harder to contain his emotions. This helped somewhat, but he was still sleeping poorly, struggling to concentrate, and felt unmotivated in both ministry and life in general.

Additionally, Fr. Tom realized he had progressively withdrawn from friends ever since his mother’s death.  He felt isolated and sad, yet he didn’t have the energy or even desire to reach out to anyone.

Several friends and one close coworker tried expressing their growing worries about him. He rebuffed them, however, by attributing his problems to stress from his heavy workload.

One day, sitting alone in his office, he started to cry uncontrollably. That was the last straw. He realized he needed to do something. He broached the issue with his vicar for clergy and felt some relief for the first time in a long while when the vicar told him the diocese would support an evaluation at Saint Luke Institute.

Glimmer of Hope

By the end of the week-long, multidisciplinary evaluation (spiritual, physical, and psychological), Fr. Tom already felt a glimmer of hope, given how understanding everyone on the evaluation team seemed to be about his situation.

The experts at Saint Luke diagnosed him with anxiety and depression. It proved a tremendous relief to be offered placement in the six-month inpatient treatment track. The Institute has other programs that offer a shorter duration and different focus, but the team, diocese, and Father all agreed he would most benefit from this program and approach.

Within the first two months of treatment, Fr. Tom’s mood began to shift. At first, the changes were subtle but nonetheless noticeable to him. Fr. Tom attributed the positive changes to talking about his grief over his mother’s death, which had tipped him into depression. He also knew taking an antidepressant medication provided him the necessary cushion to tackle this emotional work, which he had avoided for nine months.

His mood really began to lift, however, after his primary therapist asked him what made him feel gratitude.

Recognizing Gratitude

Fr. Tom initially struggled to answer this seemingly simple question. His therapist encouraged him to take several days to think, feel, and pray about it and then share what might come to him.

Over the next several days, Fr. Tom generated a short but personally meaningful

list of reasons for gratitude in his life. First during individual therapy and then in groups, he started focusing on his overwhelming gratitude for his mother, who had raised him on her own after his father’s death when he was a young child.

Listing more and more things about her goodness and loving qualities and sharing his joys of remembrance with others helped him grieve differently than he had previously done. He no longer focused only on the deep sadness  he felt at her passing (which of course is also a necessary part of acknowledging the depth of grief). Rather, he could now tap into a genuine appreciation of how much God had blessed him to have given her as his mother.

It pleased Fr. Tom to notice he also possessed a good number of the same positive qualities he had listed as part of his gratitude about her. This caused him to feel even closer to his mother and to feel grateful for those qualities in himself on an experiential level.

Connecting to God in Gratitude

Fr. Tom began to broaden his gratitude practice, listing friends he wanted to reconnect with in anticipation of returning home. He even phoned a few of them to directly share how thankful he felt to have them in his life. Finally, he redeveloped a more meaningful connection to God, including his thankfulness that this relationship had drawn him to the priesthood in the first place.

By the time Fr. Tom left Saint Luke Institute, he had developed a very intentional, daily gratitude practice that bookended the day, beginning in the  morning by acknowledging his mother’s

life and her gift of life to him and ending every evening with a list of the day’s gratitude, both large and small.

Father returned to ministry with renewed zeal, and he gave this recommendation to all parishioners who seemed receptive: “Practice daily gratitude, in any way that works for you, and you’ll feel more and more grateful every day!”

For confidentiality reasons, names, identifying data and other details of treatment have been altered.