November 23, 2021
“What are you grateful for?” This simple question, or some variation of it, will be asked and answered around countless dinner tables this month as our nation celebrates the Thanksgiving holiday. Gratitude is one of those virtues which everyone recognizes as important but which few achieve. I often fall into the modern mindset of directing my gratitude towards things rather than persons. I’m thankful for my house, my car, my “fill in the blank.”
The renowned 20th century theologian Romano Guardini believed that gratitude was a “gradually disappearing virtue.” He believes there are three important conditions for gratitude to be a truly authentic virtue.
First, gratitude is only possible in an “I” and “Thou” relationship. It is a deep expression of a personal encounter within the context of a real need. I love to go hiking, and at the end of a long hike, I enjoy taking off my shoes and slipping on my favorite flip-flops. I might ironically look at my flip-flops and say, “Thank you,” but this personification of an inanimate object is not the virtue of gratitude. My gratitude, while centered on the flip-flops, is directed towards my wife, who gave them to me, or even the designer who created them. Gratitude, as a virtue, is only possible in the context of a relationship.
The second condition for gratitude identified by Guardini is that it can only exist in the realm of the voluntary.
I truly enjoy long-distance road trips. I begrudgingly tolerate driving in cities as a necessity of my life. I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve coasted up to a light that has just turned red when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere. When I’m fortunate enough to have a light turn from red to green, I almost instinctively mutter a silent “Thank you.”
In truth, the algorithm controlling the lights did not take me into account when it switched from red to green. True gratitude springs from a heart that is free to respond to an act that was freely given.
Finally, Guardini believes that the last condition for gratitude is that the one who gives has a sense of reverence for the one who receives. When we give because it’s “expected” or because it’s “the right thing to do,” we make gratitude for that action impossible. I don’t feed, clothe and teach my children simply because I’m expected to as a parent; I do it because I love them and have a deep desire to see them thrive. If I did not have a reverence for my children as persons, my generosity towards them would quickly transform into resentment.
In ancient Hebrew, there is no direct equivalent to the word gratitude. In English, gratitude is classified as a noun; it’s a thing you have or possess. In ancient Hebrew, every word that comes close to the concept of gratitude is a verb. It is something that you do or express. In nearly every instance, these words describe how we relate to God.
Our “I” gives thanks, gives praise, and cries out to the “Thou” of God who freely gives because of the reverence He has for us as persons. In our gratitude, do we freely give back to God out of our reverence for Him?
Brian Henritze, is an associate director with the Office of Adolescent Catechesis and Evangelization.