Gratitude – a pre-eminent virtue, and matter of justice
On October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation recommending “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God…”
His proclamation cited the divine favors this newly born America enjoyed – care and protection, a favorable outcome from war, tranquility, union, and plenty. To be American was to be grateful. And one might say: to be ungrateful would be downright un-American.
Gratitude to God is also the bedrock of our Catholic tradition. Saturated with acclamations of thanksgiving from top to bottom, our liturgies begin, proceed, and end with thanks. Our Eucharist is the most sublime expression of thanks of which the human race is capable.
For St. Thomas Aquinas, the virtue of gratitude is a matter of justice, or ethics. We are debtors – simply and objectively, owing thanks to four parties in order of excellence: God, our parents, persons of great dignity, and finally, our benefactors.
For St. Ignatius of Loyola, gratitude was the pre-eminent human virtue. The first step in his Examen Prayer, a critical daily practice, is (you guessed it) gratitude. “I note the gifts that God’s love has given me this day, and I give thanks to God for them.” Recall, recite, and give thanks. He warned of the irony of blessing fatigue. “We will much sooner tire of receiving his gifts than he of giving them.” To Ignatius, ingratitude is “most worthy of detestation…the cause, beginning, and origin of all evil and sins.”
For St. Therese of Lisieux, gratitude was a surefire formula for proliferating grace. “What most attracts God’s grace is gratitude, because if we thank Him for a gift, He is touched and hastens to give us 10 more, and if we thank Him again with the same enthusiasm, what an incalculable multiplication of graces! I have experienced this; try it yourself and you will see! My gratitude for everything He gives me is limitless, and I prove it to Him in a thousand ways.”
For G.K. Chesterton, we have two choices in life – “to take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” He was a big man, and very jolly. “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
A less-renowned practitioner of gratitude was my father, Bart Berlucchi. A child of the Great Depression, he lost his mother as a young boy, and was sent to live with various relatives. It was a tough haul. But like many in that great generation, he was immensely and habitually thankful. When once asked at age 85 what he was most grateful for, he spontaneously exclaimed: “Everything!” Fittingly, he passed from earth to eternity on Thanksgiving Day, 2006.
These days it seems many Americans are fed an unrelenting diet of reasons for resentment, victimhood, class-envy, and division. Perhaps our root sin, as St. Ignatius observes, is simply ingratitude. Thanksgiving Day reminds us that we are a fundamentally and overwhelmingly blessed nation. It’s no wonder that for many Americans, Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday. For one day we all do one thing – not unlike the Examen. We recall, recite, and give thanks. What could be more wonderful? What could be more human? What could be more divine?
“Give thanks to the Lord for He is good: His steadfast love endures forever.” 1 Chronicles 16:34
JAMES BERLUCCHI is co-founder of the Spitzer Center for Visionary Leadership, which serves both faith-based and business organizations to strengthen their cultures and performance. He was a former executive director of Legatus.