‘Rejoice Always’: Growing in the Virtue of Gratitude This Thanksgiving
COMMENTARY: Because God created everything and he is always with us, we can be thankful to God in all things.
“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Giving thanks in all circumstances does not always seem possible. There are many times in which we do not want to give thanks. But St. Paul and all the saints we celebrated earlier this month remind us that it is possible to rejoice, pray and give thanks all the time.
One traditional spiritual practice that helps us do this is continually placing oneself in the presence of God. Spiritual masters such as St. Francis de Sales have recommended techniques such as making oneself aware of God’s presence in all things or being mindful of God’s holy presence in your heart. These practices are beautiful and helpful for being present to God at every moment. Another way that I have found to do this is through making little internal acts of gratitude throughout the day.
Gratitude is one of the most important virtues for us to foster in our lives as Christians, for through it we realize that every aspect of our existence is a gift from God; and in exercising it we grow in the most important virtue of all, which is charity. And once we are intentional about making many little acts of thanksgiving, our hearts are transformed into being able to “give thanks in all circumstances.”
Appreciation in Action
St. Thomas Aquinas explains the importance of the virtue of gratitude in his Summa Theologiae. He explains that gratitude is part of the virtue of justice. Justice is giving others what is due to them, and gratitude is giving a just response of thanks in words and actions to those who benefit us.
To have the virtue of gratitude, we should respond in thanks to those who are good to us through large and small acts. Our response of gratitude should be a proper feeling and an act of thanksgiving that fits what was done to benefit us.
Another place for gratitude is between friends or family, who are always helping each other. In these cases, we do not count how many times we have helped or our loved ones have helped us; rather, we show our charity for each other and gratitude through gifts on special occasions, helping each other in times of need and showing appreciation. Sometimes a response of gratitude is simply an internal act of thanksgiving to God for people who manufacture the things we buy or grow the food we eat and being willing to pay a just amount for the goods we receive from them.
However, there are some cases in which we are benefited in a way that we cannot possibly repay or even “make up” for what we have been given. This is the case with our parents, who brought us into existence. This is why the Fourth Commandment tells us, “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). The way we honor our parents changes in various stages of life and family circumstances. To truly have the virtue of gratitude, we must consider how we show it to our parents.
We also must bear in mind that any honor we owe our parents is ultimately directed toward God, the giver of life (Psalm 36:9). This is right and just, for we owe everything to God, from whom we have received all good things.
In the creation stories in Genesis, we see that God created the whole material universe, all of the plants, animals and minerals that we depend on for our sustenance, the angels who look out for us, and finally, us human beings. Scripture tells us that God “breathed into [man’s] nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
While this is a spiritual telling of the beginning of human life, we can understand this as God creating and placing in each human being an immortal soul. Consider the moment you came into existence, when God breathed his life into you, and you became a living soul.
He has given us our lives and our souls and has redeemed us from original sin. He died and rose for us. He gives us sanctifying grace in baptism and offers us actual grace continually to assist us in growing closer to him through becoming holy. We owe him more gratitude than we could ever give him but must dispose ourselves to be open to his grace and strive every day to give him thanks.
Knowing these things about gratitude, how do we celebrate Thanksgiving properly? For many Americans, the national holiday of Thanksgiving is often about beginning Christmas shopping, putting up a Christmas tree or getting out the Advent wreath. Some of us take the time to remember those early colonists and the Native Americans who helped them survive. For most of us, it involves sharing a large meal with loved ones centered around a turkey with many side dishes. Yet, when was the last time we decided to make Thanksgiving about growing in the virtue of gratitude? In fact, we can do all our Thanksgiving traditions as well as seek to live out St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians.
I encourage you to begin this Thanksgiving by setting aside a little time for prayer or even go to a morning Mass. Give yourself time to contemplate how God has given you existence and has made a way for you to be happy with him forever in heaven. Open yourself up to his grace, offering him thanks. Pray with Psalm 92 (“It is good to give thanks to the Lord”) and Psalm 139 (“O Lord, you have searched me and know me”). Allow yourself to be filled with gratitude and charity.
Ask the Lord to show you how he was near you in your hardships in the last year and thank him for suffering along with you. Remember that your suffering is an opportunity to be united with the cross and share in the work of redemption. Ask that the grace of this time of prayer be blessed.
Hold your gratitude in your heart throughout the day, and when it is time for turkey, invite others present at the meal to share what they are thankful for.
When Thanksgiving is over, allow this gratitude to spill into your life. Because God created everything and he is always with us, we can be thankful to God in all things. Little moments of thanksgiving help remind us that — from the breath within our lungs, to our loved ones around us, to our very existence — all is a complete gift. And when we are properly thankful for all of these gifts, we will rejoice in the Lord always.