Decades before the birth of Christ, Cicero called gratitude “… not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others,” a sentiment echoed throughout Scripture; by Martin Luther, who called thankfulness “the basic Christian attitude;” and in the title of the third section of the Heidelberg Catechism (“Gratitude”). Not only has gratitude been commended for more than three millennia, it is also the object of a great deal of recent psychological study, which confirms that it is good for us: thankful people exhibit increased self-acceptance and a greater sense of purpose in life; they are more altruistic; they have happier lives in general, and so forth.
It is tempting to use these benefits to encourage or even justify giving thanks. This would, however, quickly change gratitude from a virtue into a project of self-improvement: “I’m grateful because it’s good for me;” I suspect that our skill at giving thanks would soon become the self-laudatory object of those thanks.
Gratitude, however, is a virtue, something that “sets [us] right from within” (Josef Pieper). And this is because we can be grateful only when we recognise that everything that we are and have is a gift that we receive from God, either directly (e.g., life, skills, talents and aptitudes, a body and soul) or indirectly, through another human being (e.g., love, encouragement, friendship, and—more mundane, but no less necessary—food, clothing, shelter, goods) or the world around us. Seeing life as a gift depends in turn on keeping our selves from the lure of entitlement, the idea that what we get we deserve. (If I deserve your gift, it is not a gift; you are merely trying to pay off a debt—your giving me a “gift” tacitly acknowledges that I earned it, regardless of how you think of it.)
And seeing our total dependence on God and others may, by divine grace, begin to shift our eyes off our selves so that we no longer see our selves as the source of our selves, and begin to recognise how dependent we are—for everything—on those unseen systems of governmental and commercial cooperation that supply our food, clothing, shelter, and all else that we need, as well as on those who love us and whom we love—those who help us, pray for us, encourage us, believe in us, and support us in ways that we tend to assume as “my right.” And to understand these things is to begin to recognise how needy we are—to borrow from John Donne, to acknowledge that “no man is an island.” Its virtuous work thus transforms us from seeking independence—the sin of Adam—into thanking God that we are not.
If we truly understand our neediness, and then see our needs being met, our natural response is to thank someone. And so we express our gratitude by saying, “Thank you for …”, and add “I am so grateful to you and for you,” thus acknowledging and affirming both the gift and the giver. To say “I am grateful to and for you,” however, expresses more than gratitude; it is an act of love, the essence of which is to affirm the goodness of existence (Pieper). To say “I love you” is to say “It is good that you exist; it is good that you are in this world”.
Gratitude is therefore a double affirmation for the Christian: we affirm the goodness of the God who has created and who sustains us, and who saves us in Christ, and the goodness of the person to whom and for whom we are grateful. We are in fact agreeing with God himself when “he looked upon all that he had made and saw that it was very good” (Gn 1.31).
This double affirmation then underlies our desire to celebrate, and explains Pieper’s insistence that all genuine feasts are fundamentally religious: birthdays and anniversaries celebrate the goodness of life itself and the lives of those whom we love in particular; the great Christian holy days (“holidays”) celebrate the magnalia Dei—the acts of the God who loves all things. And so true feasts are communal gatherings of friends and families that also welcome the widow, the fatherless, and the stranger, times when we together affirm and “thank the Lord for he is good”. And so, as Father Alexander Schmemann ended his last sermon, we say “Lord, it is good to be here! Amen.”1
1 I am grateful to Father Noah of St. Philip’s Orthodox Church for this reference to Father Schmenann’s
Dr. Frederic Putnam is a professor of Old Testament and New Testament in the Templeton Honors College.