Giving Thanks


Healing of the Leper -
by PIERO DI COSIMO -
from Cappella Sistina, Vatican

 

The greatest hindrance to progress
in the spiritual life is ingratitude

Saint Bernard


 

 

Giving Thanks

by Father Paul Duffner, O.P.

Our Blessed Lord was on His way to Jerusalem, passing between Samaria and Galilee, when He was met by 10 lepers, one of whom was a Samaritan - (Luke 17:11). Ordinarily a Samaritan would not associate with the Jews, but necessity often makes strange bed-fellows, and the hideous disease that afflicted all of them, as well as the requirements of isolation demanded by the law, brought these unfortunates together.

While Jesus was still at a distance, they cried out: "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us." Our Savior did not cure them then and there, but told them to go and show themselves to the priests, for the Mosaic law prescribed that it was the duty of the priest to examine a man suspected of leprosy, and to decide whether or not he had the disease or was cured of it.

With faith in His word all of them left immediately to see the priest, and while on the way their disease disappeared. One of them, the Samaritan, the moment he realized that he had been cured, returned to give thanks at the feet of Jesus. Our Savior was pleased with this action, but sad at the ingratitude of the others:

"Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give thanks to God except this foreigner?"

Christ was sad, not for His own sake, but for theirs, for He would have given them even a greater gift had they been grateful. Their own self-interest came first in their mind, and once they saw that the leprosy was gone their only thought was their good fortune, and the One Who cured them was quickly forgotten. Whereas, with the Samaritan, his first thought was the One Who cured him. He was delighted with the cure, but uppermost in his mind was a consciousness of his duty to render thanks and praise to the One Who had effected that cure. And Jesus said to him: "Rise and go your way, your faith has made you whole." He was not only physically well, but his faith in Jesusí word and his gratitude won for him an interior grace and healing that was not given to the other nine.

 

The Divine Benefactor

Giving thanks is an expression of gratitude for favors received. When it is sincere, it springs from a spirit of thankfulness and a recognition of a favor or gift to which we have no just claim. One need not be grateful when receiving something that is owed in justice. However, when receiving something not owed, but given out of the goodness of heart of the benefactor, a debt of gratitude is incurred. With regard to our neighbor, therefore, we can owe him something in strict justice, because of some contract entered into; or we can owe him something out of gratitude, because of some favor received out of the goodness of his heart. In this latter case, if at times the ability to repay in kind is wanting, the expression of a grateful heart suffices. It is, as they say, "a poor manís payment".

But with regard to gifts received from God, we do not have a strict right to them, they are His free gifts. Therefore we have a serious duty to thank God for the countless gifts He has bestowed upon us. Let us examine this duty and the reasons for it.

 

Our Infinite Debt of Gratitude

Because of the countless blessings God showers upon us, both in the order of nature and the order of grace, He has a strict right to expect gratitude from us. As Saint James reminds us, "Every good gift and every perfect gift comes down from above, coming down from the Father of Lights." (James 1:17) And Saint Paul asks: "What have you that you have not received? And if you have received it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" (1Corinthians 4:7)

Never in this life will we ever fully appreciate those gifts, neither as to their number nor their greatness. God brought us into being, and in every moment of our existence conserves us in being. He gave us a soul made to His own likeness and image, with an intellect enabling us to know Him, and a will enabling us to love Him. He gave us all the capacities and talents we enjoy of body and soul. He gave us sanctifying grace that enables us to share in His own divine life; and is constantly giving us actual graces that enlighten the mind and strengthen the will in times of need. All the material goods and the opportunities we enjoy are gifts of His Divine Providence. How often do we stop to reflect on this total dependence on God, and thank Him for His never-failing love?

Lack of space does not allow us to consider these gifts in detail, but let us take a brief look at a very basic one, the gift of faith. We have no right to this gift, a gift not given to all. It is a mark of Godís special favor, but it is a gift that can be lost by those who do not appreciate it and are not grateful for it. Those without this gift grope in the darkness of error and doubt, and have little realization of the peace of mind that comes to those who live their Catholic faith by trusting reliance on the teaching authority of the Church. How often do we reflect on this gift and thank God for it, striving to keep the light of faith as the guiding light of our life? For those whose strong faith gives them a deep insight into Godís ways, even crosses and trials can be seen as a gift of Godís love bringing spiritual growth. Are we ever able to thank God for them as did the Psalmist: "It was good for me that I was afflicted . . ." (Psalm 119:71)

Too, we can never thank God enough for His merciful forgiveness. In this life we so quickly forget the multitude of our offenses against God, and the countless times He has pardoned us. Like the nine lepers who failed to return and give thanks, how easily we forget the leprosy of sin from which we have been cleansed, not once but many times, and sink into a self-complacency which forgets the mercies of the past and the dangers of the present. When we appear before God at the end of our life all will be so clear, and our unpaid debt of gratitude so manifest.

When our first parents rebelled against God (in spite of these gifts) the Father gave His only-begotten Son to redeem us, and the Son in turn gave His life in that redeeming sacrifice. Too, before He returned to the Father, the Son not only gave us His own Mother as our Mother, but gave us another visible and guiding Mother, the Church, as custodian of His message and of the Sacraments, the crowning gift of which is the Eucharist, the sacrifice and sacrament of His own Body and Blood. So bountiful has God been with His gifts that Saint Augustine exclaimed: "He Who is infinitely rich, had nothing more to give."

Because of these endless gifts bestowed upon us by our Heavenly Father, adoration and thanksgiving are manís first fundamental duty, apart from any question of sin and satisfaction. Before his fall, Adam was bound to adore and thank God. Even Christ Himself, as regards His human nature, was not exempt from this obligation. It is an essential condition of the relation between creature and Creator. Because of this, the life of the angels and saints in heaven, who are vividly aware of the gifts received, is one of eternal praise and thanksgiving.

 

Man's Ingratitude

Yet, this duty of giving thanks is so often neglected, even by good people who have been especially blessed with Godís favors. So many of us are like the nine lepers who failed to return and give thanks.

So often it is not the most highly favored that are the most grateful, but those who at times are without many of the comforts and conveniences of life, and who have not enjoyed these benefits with sufficient regularity to take them for granted. Those who are well situated, materially speaking, can grow so accustomed to enjoying plentiful food and the conveniences of life that they forget that there is anything to be grateful for. And the more our modern world supplies us with material comforts and conveniences, and the more medical sciences succeeds in preventing, or curing, or alleviating pain and disease, the less mindful many seem to be of Godís bountiful hand, and therefore of their debt of gratitude. We are more conscious of gifts received from our fellow-men. Yet, not until the next life will we be aware of the constant flow of gifts that God bestows upon us, so many of which we take for granted as though we had a natural right to them.

If one received a miraculous cure at Lourdes or Fatima, he or she would no doubt be everlastingly grateful to God for it. But if we do not need a cure, if we have good health, good vision, good hearing, strong limbs . . . do we just take all this for granted? Does one have to lose these gifts, or see another lose them, before he becomes mindful that God is their source and express heart felt thanks? We might enjoy good reading, listening to good music, etc. Do we ever reflect that the very capacity to enjoy these things is a gift of God, a gift that could be lost, a gift that some people are born without? We read of the millions upon millions throughout the world who are undernourished. Do we remember to thank God for the plenty we enjoy, and resolve to share some of God's blessings with those who have been less fortunate?

God gave us a human body so wonderfully made that only gradually are the natural sciences - with their advanced technology - discovering its wonders and the natural safeguards with which it is endowed. And yet, so many take it all for granted, and render praise to science for discovering these things, instead of praising God Who made them, and Who gave man the very capacity to discover them.

God is so prodigal with His gifts that we forget the immense debt of thanksgiving that we owe for them. We forget that they are gifts, and not something we have a right to. Godís infinite generosity should not cause us to be forgetful of His loving concern, but fill us with a humble acknowledgment of our total dependence on Him.

 

Ingratitude brings Spiritual Loss

We know from our own experience that we enjoy giving to one who is sincerely grateful, and we feel somewhat upset towards those who are ungrateful for what we have done for them, and less inclined to continue our giving. In this painful disappointment that we feel at the ingratitude of others, Our Lord is allowing us to experience a small portion of the pangs of His own Sacred Heart when we are not grateful for His gifts, when we do not return His love. He is more generous with His gifts to those who are humbly grateful for them, those whose heart is ever mindful of His endless favors. For this reason it has been said that "gratitude is the best means of petition."

In spite of our ingratitude, God - Who knows our weaknesses - still does not withhold His gifts from us entirely. Yet, Godís patience should not make us forget that our ingratitude will lessen the frequency and the extent of those gifts. If we feel hurt at the ingratitude of others, we should be all the more careful not to fail in that manner towards God, Who is a benefactor to us infinitely more than we are to others. "Blessed is the soul," wrote Saint Bernard, "who every time he receives a gift of grace from God, returns to Him Who responds to our gratitude for the favors we have received by giving us new favors. The greatest hindrance to progress in the spiritual life is ingratitude, for God counts as lost the graces we receive without gratitude, and He refrains from giving us new graces."

If the multitude of divine gifts we have received do not produce in us proportionate fruits, one of the reasons probably lies in our want of gratitude. And if we would look more deeply for the root cause of ingratitude, almost always it will be found to be a lack of humility.

 

Only the Humble are Truly Grateful

The proud person robs God of His glory, seeing himself as the principal cause of his accomplishments. Unmindful of his dependence on God, he seldom asks Godís help, and if he does it is mainly from the lips and not from the heart, for he attributes to his own merits any graces received. Seldom, therefore, is he conscious of his duty of giving thanks to God. The humble person, on the other hand, is fully aware of his dependence on God and of his incapacity apart from God. When he does some good work, or practices some virtue, he sees it as the fruit of Godís grace, and is constantly thanking God Whom he recognizes as the source of all good. For the truly humble person gratitude is spontaneous and natural.

Working as a missionary in a remote area of Central America, where a considerable percentage of the population are descendants of the Mayan Indians, I encountered natives whose culture and living conditions were very primitive. Many of them lived in huts made of clay, with the bare ground as the floor. A fire built in the middle of the hut served as the stove to cook their tortillas, or whatever other simple item they might have to eat. The material poverty and lack of sanitary living conditions was extreme. Other than their simple dwelling, they had few possessions with the exception of a few tools with which they obtained a meager return for the grain they planted in the small plot of land allotted to them.

Most of these natives are Catholic, and when they came to the parish church to pray they often prayed aloud and in their own native tongue. I recall on one occasion, an elderly native woman came to the church to pray. A daughter of hers was dying of tuberculosis. I could not help noticing her prayer. It was almost like a litany of "thank youís." Again and again "thank you Lord." One who had so little, materially speaking, but who was truly rich with the riches of the soul, so aware of Godís providence, and so grateful for the simple blessings He provided.

 

Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

As we already have indicated, we are so indebted to God for all His gifts both in the natural and supernatural order, that if it depended on ourselves alone the whole of eternity would not be sufficient to pay the debt of gratitude. Yet, God has not only provided us with His gifts, but has provided us with an adequate way of rendering thanks. In the sacrifice of the Mass we can completely satisfy that debt, because in that sacrifice Christ offers Himself in our place, adding our prayer of thanks to His. In fact, the very word "Eucharist" means thanksgiving, so that the expression "Eucharistic Sacrifice" literally means sacrifice of thanksgiving. As Abbot Columba Marmion, O.S.B. expressed it, "Christ Himself becomes our thanksgiving, our Eucharist." (Christ, Life of Soul, p.279)

Before the institution of the Eucharistic sacrifice at the Last Supper, Our Blessed Lord "gave thanks" to His Father - (Matthew 26:27). And in every Mass, before the Consecration, the celebrant, following the example of Christ reads or sings a hymn of thanksgiving (the Preface): "Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give You thanks through Jesus Christ Our Lord . . . "

As we have pointed out in a previous issue (vol. 42, n. 3), thanksgiving is one of the four ends of the Mass: adoration, reparation, thanksgiving and petition. The Mass does not automatically fully pay our debt in these regards, but does so in the measure that we are united with Christ renewing His oblation. And we must express our gratitude by our lives, as well as by our words. If thanksgiving means anything at all, it will show itself in some tangible form in leading a better life, in a more faithful service, in fewer lapses into sin. The real proof of gratitude is a more fervent love in Godís service.