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The whispers of God

| Monday, February 8, 2016

My life has changed a lot in the course of the past year. I finished a master’s degree, leased my first apartment, moved for yet another time, started paying (bigger and more consistent) bills and began my first professional job here at Notre Dame.

It seems — at least for the foreseeable future — that I don’t have another transition immediately looming on the horizon.

But in the course of the past couple months, I’ve learned there are still plenty of things that can change in my life, even in the midst of stability. For me, it’s meant discovering and living into those adult commitments that now define much of my day-to-day existence.

Take my first apartment lease as an example. Walking into a bare apartment on the first day of renting was a big shock back in August. Turns out, it takes a lot of work and effort to fill a new space. Of course, I immediately noticed the cool big-ticket items that I would need to pick out and acquire — a couch, bed, chairs, television and table — to take a few examples.

Yet it was in the aisles of Bed, Bath and Beyond that I received my real initiation into adulthood. My parents were quick to point out my bachelor pad might require a few more “domestics” than I had initially thought. Within no time, I became the proud owner of new trashcans, bowls, cutlery, trash bags and a plunger. Necessary items, yes, but definitely not as cool.

Over the course of the next few days, I was able to get everything assembled and placed. After many hours of hard work, finishing my set-up came with a definite feeling of satisfaction. Not only did I love relaxing in my new space, but also I was pleased with everything I had purchased. I wanted my apartment to be comfortable, and I felt that was exactly how it had turned out.

As the proceeding days turned into weeks, however, I noticed something starting to change within me. I no longer had the same feeling of satisfaction as I entered my apartment each day. The same items I had been so pleased to share with others were beginning to lose their luster. In fact, I started looking for items I thought might make the space look better.

As you can imagine, this got pretty old. Not only that, but it made me think — why was I so dissatisfied?

I knew it was not because I didn’t have nice things, or that I hadn’t taken care to pick out things I really enjoyed. There was something deeper at work.

It was then that I remembered some words of a colleague of mine, Prof. John Cavadini. Lecturing about St. Augustine this past fall, he said, “I think the meaning of life is learning to say ‘thank you’ better.”

I have been meditating over these words since then. Could that really be true? I have been trying to say “thank you” better for some time now. To do this, I write personal notes of gratitude in response to the ways people have helped me to see the world — and my life — as full of grace. But that hasn’t eliminated my struggles or my disappointments.

But, in committing to this practice, I’ve learned that’s not precisely the point. Saying “thank you” is not a cure-all, but a way of living in spite of longing. As you can see, material goods sometimes preoccupy me. But there is merit — and meaning — that can come from saying it anyway.

Controlled, scientific studies add credence to this fact. One study, undertaken by a website called “Soul Pancake,” found that when study participants personally called to express gratitude to a significant person in their life, their happiness (as measured from a survey administered at the beginning of the study) increased between four and 19 percent. So saying “thank you,” while not a panacea, does matter.

All this led me to the deeper truth of St. Augustine’s words in his work “The Confessions,” “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord.” That is to say, our hearts will be restless until we recognize and live into the truth that we were made to live as images of our creator — the one who is the gift of love between persons.

Thus, our ultimate satisfaction will only come when we can consistently acknowledge and orient our desires not toward things, but toward relationships. Living in gratitude for those relationships has allowed me to encounter the reality for which we were made — a love that reminds us that our lives have meaning despite our possessions or other external things. There we hear the whispers of a God who wants to remind us of that too.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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