We might call it the “Black Friday creep”—for years the start time for Black Friday has crept closer and closer to Thanksgiving Day. This year many retailers will be open for longer hours on Thanksgiving Day, threatening to make the holiday little more than a drive-thru meal. The tug of war really is between two outlooks on life—one based on envy with the need to get the best deals on the latest things and gratitude at being satisfied with what you already have. Thanksgiving Day is about gratitude and therefore is celebrated best when we have worked to cultivate this virtue. Therefore it seems fitting to offer a reflection on this virtue.
To begin, a word about the celebrating of secular holidays like Thanksgiving. As Christians who believe in a God who acts within human history (i.e. within the secular), we should not object to the celebration of these holidays. What we should object to however is when they become infused with a secularized mentality. Gratitude by its nature must have an object toward which one is grateful. To say “I am thankful” is the same as going into a restaurant and simply saying “I order.” Just as you need to identify the food you want to eat, you must also identify a person you are thankful to. In the United States, the Person towards which we are thankful to is God. Even Barack Obama, no friend of religion, echoes the sentiments of Washington and Lincoln in his own Thanksgiving Day proclamations calling for gratitude to “Almighty God.” Without this acknowledgment, Thanksgiving becomes just another day to “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you will die.” As GK Chesterton may once said (quoting another author), “the worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful, and has nobody to thank.” No one ultimately can be grateful to “the processes of history.”
Just knowing who we are grateful to however is not enough. To keep Thanksgiving from becoming “Thanks-taking” we need to make sure we are exercising the virtue of gratitude properly.
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.” Gratitude is both affective and effective. The affective element consists in both “thanks-reflecting” and “thanks-saying.” The effective element consists in “thanks-giving.” Most of us only associate gratitude with “thanks-saying” and therefore miss the virtue in its fullness.
“Thanks-reflecting” consists in, as St. Thomas says, the “recollection of (divine) benefits.” It is this first part that in many ways is the most important. It is the time when we count and name our blessings. If you read the first Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of George Washington, he enumerates the things for which the country should be grateful— “the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.” In other words, it is not enough to say who we are thankful to, but we must also say what we are thankful for. There is great benefit to doing this because it only strengthens our gratitude. As we begin to enumerate all the ways in which God has blessed us we will grow to thank Him for everything, including our sufferings, able to “give thanks in every circumstance” (1 Thes 5:18).
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.
There is a danger of seeing gratitude as being about quid pro quo—like sending Thank You notes for Thank You notes. But it 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. And, most importantly He is a joyful giver. While we may not be able to return the affection to God directly, it is with joy and sheer gratuity that we celebrate Thanksgiving with those God has placed in our lives.
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. Thanksgiving Day will not be complete unless you start the day with Mass. The Eucharist is man’s greatest gift back to God.
Gratitude is so important because it makes the hearts of the giver and the receiver the same. This happens really and truly when we receive the Eucharist. Our hearts become united to the Sacred Heart. 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.
As I have said any number of times, one of the ways that Catholics can recapture the culture is to celebrate holidays like only Catholics can. We are not so other-worldly that we do not see the goods God has placed in this world for our enjoyment. We do not merely thank God for His spiritual benefits, but also the freedom He has given us to use the material gifts in the way He intended when He bestowed them upon us. This shatters the delusion about Christianity that many people operate under. When we put the joy of being Catholic on display, holidays like Thanksgiving can be a powerful means of evangelization. As Hillaire Belloc once said, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!