Psalm 116:12, 17
“What shall I return to the Lord
for all his bounty to me? …
I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
and call on the name of the Lord.” (Ps. 116:12, 17)
The American holiday of Thanksgiving is a wonderful reminder of the importance of gratitude, a virtue that we have probably noticed is ironically undermined and quickly forgotten amidst the materialistic commercialism that permeates our society leading up to the Christmas holiday.
However, as tempting as it might be to fantasize about burning down retail stores on Black Friday or “cancel Christmas” like the Grinch, we might do well first to reconsider the real cause behind our neglect of gratitude. And while the following claim might seem to hold some irony, I believe that our lack of gratitude is essentially connected to our misunderstanding of how to receive and give gifts well.
In St. John Paul II’s teaching, he emphasized the human person’s fundamental identity as being discovered through the notion of gift. He is famous for his line: “Man…cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (GS 24) Through this, the pope claims that the human person’s very nature and design are ordered towards love, or what he calls the “gift of self.”
Yet, what does the notion of “gift” add to our understanding of love? Is JP2 just being “modern” in his desire to recreate language? No. Rather, he is expressing how the notion of gift points to a fundamental dimension within the very structure of love.
Consider how love is gratuitous; it is given freely just as a gift is offered to someone in freedom.
But a gift also implies a receiver or a beloved. To receive a gift properly, one must recognize the giver’s gratuity – or overflowing love. In contrast, a paycheck could not be understood as a gift since it is owed in exchange for work. The recipient of a gift recognizes that the giver does not owe anything – a gift is given freely. As such, we know that the only proper response to a gift is gratitude.
However, gratitude is just a starting point; it is an initial stirring of one’s heart. When we are full of gratitude, we want to offer a gift in return. The receiving of the gift, the stirring of gratitude, and the outpouring of a gift in return – this is the natural dynamism of love that we understand perfectly exists within God’s communal Trinitarian relationship of Divine Persons.
As created in God’s image, then, we know that we are made to enter into this divine pattern of love. Hence, our very identity hinges on how well we imitate this dynamic structure of giving, receiving, and offering a return of self (love).
Which brings us back to gratitude.
St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual teaching of the daily examen involves starting with an awareness of God’s presence in one’s life to cultivate gratitude. So why is gratitude the starting point for spiritual renewal and holiness?
Without gratitude, we fail to recognize the most important reality of all – the truth that we have received everything, that is, everything that is good and perfect, from God (James 1:17). Our very existence is a constant gift from God. Our human nature, made in God’s image that has the capacity to know and to love God and others freely, is a gift.
It is only when we recognize this truth that we can understand our indebtedness before God. God’s love and gifts can never be outdone. When we recognize this and come to acknowledge our lack of worthiness, then we are moved to gratitude and a desire to make a return unto the Lord. That is, we are moved to love and to live in conformity with our true identity.
Now, let’s return to our modern crisis of ingratitude. Does neglect of gratitude merely lead to selfish materialism? Certainly, greed, self-centeredness, and materialism are evils that connect to a lack of gratitude. Unfortunately, however, I think we are witnessing the next stage in our disease of ingratitude.
Today, we have become so far removed from gratitude that we often only think in terms of rights – what we are owed – and we believe we are owed everything. Our society is quick to defend so-called “rights” for contraception, abortion, divorce, and even more recently, the right to redefine marriage, family, and our very human natures.
Notice that this defense for radical rights is a separation from the notion of gift at the foundation of this defense. As Catholics, we know that sex is a gift from God. However, because God designed this gift as oriented toward union and procreation, we know it can only be respected and received properly within the context of the marriage covenant. This understanding of gift then removes any grounding for a so-called “right to contraception” that disrupts or distorts the nature of the gift.
Likewise, the idea of abortion rights is a failure to recognize the gift of life, the irreplaceable and priceless gift of another human person. The “right to divorce” or the “right to redefine marriage” also fails to recognize how marriage is a gift from God. And the current transgender activism is just one more progression in our failure to recognize our bodies as a gift. Instead of viewing our gender or human nature as a gift, we only see it as a value-free “fact” of our existence that we have a right to alter and recraft according to our design.
Notice that the core moral confusion of our time is connected to a fundamental failure to recognize life, sexuality, and human nature as gifts from God. In a world where we run back to retail stores on December 26 to return gifts we didn’t like or which didn’t fit us, it’s easy to forget how we should receive and respect God’s gifts.
Gifts are meant to be received, and God’s gifts to us, precisely because they are good and perfect, are meant to be received fully. To receive God’s gifts properly means we respect the integrity and purpose of the gift. This excludes any effort to “re-create” what He has given.
St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body redirects us to the truth that our bodies are a gift rather than a mere commodity or arbitrary object. We are not the “authors” or creators of our natures. Rather, we are recipients of God’s Gift of Self. Thus, gratitude is the key toward a correct response – a desire to receive well and to become good stewards of the gifts that God gives.
For example, if you are a parent, you can teach gratitude to your children by praying in thanksgiving before each meal with your family. You can model and insist upon using manners, especially in saying, “thank you.” This is not a mere nicety. Rather, it is like fertilizer for the soil within which humility, love, and holiness can grow.
When we rightly see ourselves as the unworthy recipients of God’s gifts, we are radically transformed. We will view life, marriage, family, and human nature not as burdens or threats to our rights and freedom but as incredible and irreplaceable gifts from a loving God. This attitude of gratitude will lead us to recognize our duty to guard and nourish the gifts rather than try to reject or reform what was given.
This season, rather than direct our focus upon awkward family reunions, turkey, and football, let’s take an opportunity to reflect and reconnect with this fundamental truth of gratitude. For it is gratitude that will guide us to discover our true identity.
Patrick Gordon writes for TOBET as a PhD Candidate at the University of Dallas.