Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Have you ever received a gift and immediately criticized it in your mind? You said “thank you” on the outside, but inside you thought of all the ways that it was not ideal. With Christmas almost here, I find myself hoping to avoid this pattern of ingratitude. My desire to be in control makes it hard for me to accept graciously something picked out by anyone else. Instead of being thankful to the person who was thoughtful towards me and was trying to express love, I feel a twinge of yucky ingratitude, which is contrary to the love I should have for them. When I fail to be properly grateful, I lack true charity towards others, and demonstrate my lack of gratitude. Yet, now that I have seen this failing in myself, I am determined to make a change.
It was not until recently that I realized that my ingratitude was not just me be picky, but it was a vice. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that ingratitude is a habitual act that leads us to not respond justly to the gifts and good things we receive from others. (see Summa Theologiae, II-II, 106-107) When I fail to feel and give proper thanks to another person, I am acting unjustly. And every time I do a thorough examination of conscience I find that my ingratitude (surprise!) extends to the way I respond to the things God has given me. All too often I complain about the blessings in my life that I see as inconveniences.
This vice, I learned, is propagated by every sin I commit. By choosing to sin, I am choosing to be ungrateful to God who has given me my very existence and who has made the whole world and all the good things in it for my use. He gave me my body, will, and intellect. Yet, I find myself criticizing my appearance, wishing I had different or better things, not caring well for the things I do have, being unkind to the people He has blessed me with, and forgetting to thank God for His many blessings. Further I use my time and talents badly—wallowing away much time in idleness instead of using it to glorify God. This, too, is ingratitude.
My ingratitude to God has lead me into all the deadly sins of pride, vanity, greed, envy, sloth, lust, gluttony, and anger. No wonder I feel lousy inside when I react badly to a gift given to me or when I shrug off a compliment! My conscience is telling me that I am doing something wrong, and that I must work to change the depths of my attitude towards God and others.
I am determined to change my attitude this Christmas season year by praying for and working to form the virtue of gratitude. Since virtues and vices are formed by our acts we can choose to act differently in order to form the habit that we would like to have. We can purposefully make acts of gratitude and in doing so form the virtue of gratitude in our hearts. Whenever we are seeking to overcome a vice and form the opposing virtue we should pray for God’s help and grace, and he will help us to perform acts that we are not capable on our own. Focusing on practicing acts of gratitude can help us to form more grateful hearts, and over time it will become second nature to be thankful for all that we have been given.
Forming a grateful heart is actually quite simple. Here are a few suggestions for forming the virtue of gratitude this Christmas season:
First, we can make a conscientious choice to become more thankful, and then say a prayer to ask God to help us form this virtue.
We can make a litany of thanksgiving to God everyday in the morning, as we go about our daily duties, at each prayer time, and before we go to bed when we make our examination of conscience. To do this we can thank God for the individual blessings of each day, praise him for the times he helped us, and end in praise of his goodness.
We can take time to pray a psalm each day: perhaps from the daily readings, from the Liturgy of the Hours, or by simply opening to the Psalms in a Bible. Psalms 120-150 are shorter and are particularly full of thanksgiving.
In our family lives we can be more deliberate to thank others for their help, and work to be helpful, gracious guests and generous hosts. We can write our husband or wife a nice note and make sure to do promptly our family duties. We can thank our children for their help, their obedience, and encourage them to think of things they are grateful for. In my home, we have recently added a time of thanksgiving at the beginning of our family intentions each evening before bed.
Towards all, we can choose to not criticize the gifts we have been given, but accept them graciously with true charity and thanksgiving. We can write a thank you notes by hand, by email, or by text message for even the smallest act of kindness. We can be kind to the people we encounter in public at stores and church with smiles and words of thanks. We can seek to do kind things and extend friendship to those God has given to us in our in my lives. We can tell others about the good things God has done for us.
All of these things are fairly simple to talk about, but until we have formed the full virtue of gratitude, living them out in the busyness of the everyday requires much diligence. Yet, we must not get discouraged in the spiritual life in forming new virtues. A daily, hourly, renewed intention to form a grateful heart will go a long way, and with the help of grace through charity we can have great hope that God will help us to change.
And I hope that, finally, this Christmas season, I can be truly thankful for all the gifts I have been given, and especially the greatest gift of all, my Incarnate Lord.
It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to thy name, O Most High;
to declare thy steadfast love in the morning, and thy faithfulness by night. (Psalm 92:1-2)