The Virtue of Thankfulness: Simply Justice or Piety?
The act of gratitude or being thankful is something which is seen as important both in the Church and in the broader human family. Gratitude is universally important for human relationships to flourish. Who wants to be around someone who takes and takes without even a brief acknowledgment of what is being given and from whom it is given? Gratitude, like authenticity, compassion, and kindness is seen as an important aspect of humanity.
But what is thankfulness? Is it simply a virtue which belongs to justice or piety? Justice is giving to each what is due to them, and piety is showing due honor to parents, the broader community, and God. The virtue of thankfulness seems to be the act of merely giving repayment, either out of a sense of justice or piety.
In other words, thankfulness is pragmatically useful for human relationships. We repay favors out of a sense of preserving friendships. This shallow view belongs to the world, but the virtue of thankfulness endowed by God is something much more.
The Special Virtue of Thankfulness
Thankfulness is a special virtue of justice, distinct from a merely transactional perspective. God is the giver of all good gifts; He is the first principle of goodness. Second, cooperating with His goodness, our parents gave us life and, ideally, raised us in a loving home. Third, there are virtuous people who make our lives better. Fourth, there are people who specifically and practically assist us and to whom we are obligated in some way. In these four cases, there is a descending level of importance in the causes of debts to be paid. Our first and greatest debt is to God, then to our parents, and so forth.
How is gratitude less transactional? It is because the virtue of thankfulness is paid spontaneously without coercion. If someone is coerced to show thanks, then the intention and the value of the action are diminished. If thankfulness merely belonged to justice, then it would be a transaction. We would owe someone thanks and we would give it. Instead, there is a moral expression of gratitude which arises from the soul and is expressed in love.
Certainly, friendships are preserved by the giving and receiving of gratitude. But, again, this is not transactional. Gratitude arises from a sincere love and mutual benefit. Friends love one another; they do not use one another.
How We Ought to Give Thanks
Of course, our act of thanksgiving must be first and foremost for Almighty God. All of us are sinners in need of God’s grace, but He does not need to give it to us. He chooses, out of superabundant love, to shower us with life and grace. Our response must be deep and visceral, welling up from a grateful spirit. This begins in silence and contemplation. When we reflect on the amazing grace of God, how could we not be moved with love and thankfulness?
We ought to give thanks without delay. Just as legal debts are paid as soon as possible, there is a sense of justice which compels us to express our gratitude with haste: whether to God, our parents, or another.
St. Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans: “Owe no man anything, but to love one another.” As St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “The debt of gratitude flows from charity, which the more it is paid the more it is due… (S.T. II.II.106.6).” Therefore, the love of God and neighbor and the expression of gratitude cannot be separated.
Our natural inclination is to pay back something more, in gratitude. If we are thankful, then we want to “return the favor”, as it were. But with God, this is impossible. What He has given us would take eternity to return in gratitude. Therefore, we must never tire of offering Him our thanks.
Thanksgiving in Action
The perfect act of thanksgiving is the celebration of the Sacred Mystery of the Holy Eucharist. In fact, the word “eucharist” comes from the Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” However, it is not primarily our thanksgiving at the Holy Mass. This has everything to do with Jesus Christ. In the work of salvation, He sets all of creation free from sin and death, consecrates it anew, and returns it to the Father, for His glory.
So, thanksgiving is the prayer of the Church, the members of the Body participating in the action of the Head, Jesus Christ. In celebrating the Holy Mass, the Eucharist, the Church becomes ever more fully what she is. Flowing from the action of Jesus’ becoming man, His passion, death, resurrection, and ascension, the whole human experience has been renewed. When we unite ourselves to Christ, in gratitude, we are entering more deeply into communion with Him.
Even the things that we ask of God must be asked with thankfulness. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “As in the prayer of petition, every event and need can become an offering of thanksgiving. The letters of St. Paul often begin and end with thanksgiving, and the Lord Jesus is always present in it: ‘Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you’; ‘Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving’ (CCC 2638).”
Let us always, with the grace of God, give thanks in all circumstances, to the glory of God!