Growing up, my aunts, uncles, and cousins would all crowd into Grandma’s small dining room to say grace before our big Thanksgiving feast, and at Grandma’s request we would each announce to the family one thing for which we were thankful from the past year. As a young boy waiting my turn to be grateful, I couldn’t help but feel that this was a terrible ordeal. Trying to drum up deep sentiments of gratitude that transcend the level of the stomach is a bit difficult when you are sharing a room with tables full of turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and apple pie, not to speak of that nagging feeling that with each grateful word the food is getting colder and colder. When the only thing standing between you and the turkey is your cousin’s interminable gratefulness, it can be a bit difficult to get into the Thanksgiving spirit. But this does raise the question: Should we be grateful for gratitude, or is it just one more thing keeping us from enjoying the turkey?
To see the nobility of the virtue of gratitude, we have to see gratitude as a response to the most sublime aspect of human life, transcending mere mercantile justice. There are many goods that we pursue through buying and selling, but there are also some things that are freely given without payment or return. When someone honestly gives you a present or shows you hospitality, there is no price to pay. In fact it would be a great affront to your host or benefactor to reduce their generosity to the level of a commodity exchange by offering to pay for the price of the present or to cover the cost of the meal served to you. The ability to receive a generous gift requires of us the humility to receive the gift precisely as a gift.
When I give you a gift freely, I am in some way acting as if you are to me another self. Because giving a gift expects no payment, the giver says by his action, “What is mine is yours.” You could say that in this way the primary gift of the giver is the gift of himself. There is no expectation for repayment because what I give you has never really left me.
This is the awesome effect of unity caused by the love of friendship. Just as giving a gift is an act of unity, to receive a gift with a grateful heart allows one to enter into a true communion with another. Individualism and self-sufficiency are antithetical to gratefulness for this very reason, as is any social fear or anxiety that dreads the real relationship of love that is formed between the giver and the one who receives. It is only the humble and courageous man who can receive a gift with due gratitude and enjoy a true communion of fellowship with others.
We can now answer the question that comes to mind when facing the turkey-obstructing eloquence of our grateful and verbose uncle. We should be grateful for the virtue of gratitude wherever it may be found, for it is a virtue that unites us.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, we must remember that our greatest debt of gratitude belongs always to God, who so loved the world that He gave us his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. We must never view the salvation won for us on the cross as something due to us, or as something we have the power to buy or purchase. Our due is death, and our salvation is a gift. This gift is nothing short of God Himself, who offers us communion with the Blessed Trinity in union with Christ. Let us then practice the virtue of gratefulness this Thanksgiving, that we might enjoy true communion with our neighbors, our loved ones, and with the God who saves.
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On behalf of all the student brothers here at the Dominican House of Studies, we would like to thank all of you, our friends and benefactors, for helping us to pursue our Dominican vocation. Without your prayers and financial support we could not receive the wonderful formation for the priesthood which we enjoy today. May you and your families know the peace and blessings of the God who gives all good things.
Image: Cornelis Dusart, Village Feast (detail)