Prayer Practice- The Gratitude Tree

It’s my joy to welcome my friend Jen Willhoite to the blog today. We met through a book writing collective called Bookwifery. Everyone there is in the process of birthing books. (What a terrific metaphor. It’s definitely labor!)

Jen is brilliant, tender, and one of the funniest people I know. One minute you’ll be trying to write down every ounce of beauty and wisdom pouring forth from her soul, the next you’ll be in the middle of a huge belly laugh.

Jen lives in California with her family and pets. She loves pizza, rollercoasters, and sports.

Jen’s main ministry is sharing how-to’s on the Ignatian examen (her main discernment tool) as well as illustrated stories featuring existential quandaries and her own friendship with the Divine.

Be sure to check out Jen’s illustrations and prayer resources available at her Etsy shop. I absolutely love her step by step examen cards and highly recommend them to you. And be sure to follow her on Instagram @cobbleworks. You’re also most welcome to subscribe to her newsletter.

May you have a powerful experience with God through the simple prayer practice she provides below. It’s perfect for Thanksgiving and throughout the year. – Lisa <><

Gratitude Tree complete Jen Willhoite

A One-Step Examen: Gratitude Blooming Even in the Struggle
I invite you to practice the Examen for a week and just do step 1, gratitude. I’m sharing something with you and my hope is that it helps build this faith muscle for you. It is my Gratitude Tree and I use it regularly to write down all the things that I cherish in a day, but especially on tough days where I’m running out of hope, answers, and light to live by.

I intentionally use a tree for this exercise because it lets me give thanks for things in various stages of growth.

  • For opportunities peeking out, but not yet ripe and present in life, I write them at the end of the branches.
  • For small seeds of hope I hold deep in my heart, I write them under the soil.
  • For the stable things I can count on nearly every day, I write them on the trunk.

You get the idea.

Although it might sound counterintuitive, I also invite you to write down your challenges—let them live among the things you hold dear. Draw them close to big blessings. I do this as a reminder to myself that God welcomes my whole life and loves my whole self just as I am.

The examen, in its entirety, asks us to look at places in our lives where we feel connected to God’s love and places where we feel separated from it. Acknowledging both of these places helps us accept our reality, share it with God knowing it is held in loving embrace and make room for the possibility that even challenges can be transformed into blessings. It is a step toward surrender and trust to let our worries mingle with that which we are grateful for. It shows us that our lives are still unfolding, there is still hope and love is growing always and in all ways.

CLICK HERE for a PDF of a blank version of Jen’s Gratitude Tree to use yourself

For those of you who’d like to go deeper
Gratitude is expansive, a spiritual yeast that grows reality right before our eyes. It often starts with courtesy but quickly deepens into our daily bread because it feeds our hope and lets us share that hope with the world.

When we practice gratitude, we might name one singular thing only to awaken to the fact that it is connected to the universe of things. From this intertwined place of comity, grandeur, vulnerability and particular joy, we begin to realize that we have entered an intimate conversation with the Holy and that we are safe here. We call this process “prayer” and its effect is relationship. The Ignatian examen guides us through and to both. Its first step, unsurprisingly, is gratitude.

Gratitude is a potent form of honesty. When we give thanks, we are telling the truth about ourselves, if only in part. In our appreciation, we admit that something matters so much to us that we can’t let it slip by without recognition. So giving thanks is deeply personal and revelatory. And like truth, it is freeing rather than controlling. Consider this:

Gratitude does not diminish or soften our desolation. It is not a pair of rose-colored glasses.

Gratitude does not pretend our suffering away. It is not a form of denial.

Gratitude does not encourage us to ignore the negative and only look for the positive. It is not a pair of blinders or a silencer.

It is a giant conjunction, a companion. It comes alongside our pain and confusion and expands our horizon so that we see a fuller sense of reality in the present moment. We might say, “I feel disconnected from my work. I am grateful I have friends I can share dinner with tonight.” Our friends may not heal the fracture we have with our jobs or have an answer to the existential reality of what we are doing with our lives, but appreciating and acknowledging them even as we feel discomfort somewhere else immediately shows us that while suffering is a part of our reality, it is not the whole of our reality. (Personally, I consider this a small form of deliverance and salvation and I rely on it regularly lest I live in glass-half-empty consciousness.)

This thing that seems to start with mere pleasantry can root us quickly and firmly into a foundation stronger than ourselves. Simple and honest statements about what we cherish about our lives nurture joy within us and our vision expands. This helps us feel safe. This helps us find sanctuary. This helps us consider that there may be more than what our initial desolation told us was going on in life. We start to wonder, “If the sunshine is present even when storm clouds are in the sky, could it be that life is more than sheltering from the storm?” Hope lives in the “could it be…” bit. Hope lives in that space where we wonder if the shadow may not be the whole picture. And it’s gratitude that gets us wondering.

With practice, naming what we are grateful for ushers us into a place of deeper connection where we can admit more of our feelings and more truths about our present moment—the shadowy cloud parts and the sunlit parts. It’s not long before we find ourselves falling into honest conversation and union with our deepest selves and the Sacred (which is what the examen is—a structure for a sacred conversation). No wonder St. Ignatius made gratitude the first step in the examen! It gets us out of our corners and reaching out to God…within our hearts and around us in life.

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