On Gratitude

Each of the saints, in his or her own unique way, gives us a concrete model of what it means to love God with “all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5).  What is not unique is that each one of them was utterly convinced that God loved them.  This conviction makes all the difference in the world.  To know that I am loved changes everything about my life.  Unfortunately for many of us, we are far from convinced of this foundational truth (including many people who consider themselves Christians).  To know, like St. Paul, that the Son of God “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20) is one thing, to realize it and experience it is another.  It is the saint who perfects this movement from knowledge of God’s love, to conviction of His love and to love God in return.  And it is a particular saint, Thomas Aquinas, that gives us a formula for making this movement a reality in our lives.

In his treatise On the Two Commandments, St. Thomas says that in order to fulfill the commandment to love God perfectly four things are required.  The first and most important is:

“…the recollection of the divine benefits, because all that we have, whether our soul or body or exterior things, we have them all from God. Therefore we must serve him with all this and love him with a perfect heart. A man would be extremely ungrateful if, after thinking of all the benefits he received from someone, he did not love him. With this in mind, David said (1Chron 29:14): ‘All belongs to you. What we received from you we give to you.’ Therefore in his praise it is said (Sir 47:10): ‘With all his heart he praised the Lord, and loved the God who made him.”

What St. Thomas is proposing is that by fostering the virtue of gratitude, we will not only love God, but love Him because we are absolutely convinced of His love for us.  Therefore, one can easily see how important gratitude is in the spiritual life.  With this in mind, it is instructive for us to reflect on this virtue.

Fr. Hardon’s Catholic Dictionary defines gratitude as the “virtue by which a person acknowledges, interiorly and exteriorly, gifts received and seeks to make at least some return for the gift conferred.”  From this definition we can see that there are essentially three parts to gratitude—“thanks-reflecting”, “thanks-saying”, and “thanks-giving.”  Most of us only associate gratitude with “thanks-saying” and therefore miss out on its benefits.

“Thanks-reflecting” consists in the “recollection of (divine) benefits” that St. Thomas mentions.  This is the first part because in many ways it is the most important.  Without it we may never realize God’s love for us individually.  Some people will do things like writing down their blessings or keeping a blessing jar.  But I think the most effective way to recall divine benefits is through the use of the daily examen prayer.

Many people will treat the examination of conscience as merely a laundry list of all the ways that they messed up during the day.  Unfortunately when it is done with this attitude, we simply swing between discouragement and determination to try harder.  The problem is that it is entirely “me-centered.”  Instead the examen should be “God centered” by focusing entirely on our response to God’s graces throughout the day.  We thank Him for the graces and for those that we responded well to and ask forgiveness for those that we missed or responded poorly.  With this comes a growth in our awareness of all the graces God sends us to the point that we begin to see everything (including our crosses) as grace-filled.  We realize that our sins are essentially different forms of ingratitude and we strive to eliminate sin because it offends the Father who has given us so much.  But this growth can only happen when we resolve to perform the examen faithfully every night.

When St. Thomas discusses gratitude in the Summa (S.T. II-II, qq.106-107), he treats it as a sub-virtue of justice.  What St. Thomas is emphasizing is that when we speak of the “debt of gratitude,” it means that we owe something in return for the favors that are done for us.  We certainly owe the words of thanks, but we must also be prepared to repay our benefactor.  This is why we speak of “thanks-giving” and not just “thanks-saying.”  This notion of a “debt of gratitude” is often lost on us and we assume that merely saying thanks is enough.  We will see why this is not enough in a moment.

First it is necessary to speak of what it is that we owe exactly.  Gratitude is not just about quid pro quo, but is something much more than that.  When given a gift, there are two things that should be considered—the affection of the heart of the giver and the gift.  It is the affection that should be returned immediately (that is we should express our thanks) and then the gift itself in a timely manner.  This applies not only to our human relationships but especially when we begin speaking of God’s gifts to us.

God gives out of sheer gratuity.  He does not benefit at all from the gifts He bestows and He bestows them simply because He is love.  He gives to each of us as a Father who has loved each of us “with an everlasting love” (Jer 31:3).  He has known each of us before we were in the womb (Jer 1:5).  It is this knowledge and love that has always existed that caused Him to create us.  It is from this love, this affection of heart that He gives to each of us.

How could we possibly return a gift with this affection of heart?  We cannot on our own.  But God has given us the power to do it by bestowing the virtue of charity in our hearts at baptism.  Charity is the habit of loving like God loves and like all habits it grows in strength each time we do it.  Each time we love God in an act of charity, that love of God grows and we are drawn closer to Him.  It is like a gravity that draws us into the orbit of love in the Trinity.

What about the gifts?  How can we return to God anything that is proportional to the gifts He has given us?  The psalmist gives us a clue when he asks the same question:

“How can I repay the LORD for all the great good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD.  I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.” (Ps 116:12-14)

Anyone reading this will immediately recognize the Eucharistic connotation of the “cup of salvation”   and recall to mind that the word Eucharist (or Eucharistia) is Greek for “thanksgiving.”  What the Spirit is telling us through the voice of the Psalmist is that the person who wants to repay his debt of gratitude to God will faithfully, actively and regularly participate in the Mass.  The sacrifice of Calvary is the most pleasing sacrifice to God and our participation in it (where we offer and are offered) is the best gift we can offer to God.  Like a good Father who gives to his children money to buy him a gift, God gives to His children something they can give to Him.

We now see why gratitude is so important for growth in the spiritual life.  While justice is about equality of things, gratitude is about equality of wills.  In other words gratitude makes the hearts of the giver and the receiver the same.  This is why the Sacred Heart and the Eucharist are so closely bound.  It is from the human heart of Jesus that God gives us the Eucharist and it is this heart that is meant to be formed in all of us.  The formation of the Heart of Jesus in us begins with gratitude.

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