The Importance of Gratitude

The Importance of Gratitude
The cure for a modern ill

By Robert J. Siscoe

In the year 1527, a Spanish monk named Francisco de Osuna published a spiritual treasure called The Third Spiritual Alphabet. This book, which is little known today, was partially responsible for the Golden Age of Spanish mysticism, which produced such saints as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. The book teaches a method of prayer called recogidos, which encourages the practice of recollection as a means of union with God. St. Teresa of Avila speaks of this book in her autobiography. She said it was given to her by her uncle when she was in her early 20’s, during a time when she was struggling with the spiritual life, and unsure if she should remain in the convent. She describes herself during this period of life as thinking “more about pleasures of sense and vanity than of my soul's profit.” It was the Third Spiritual Alphabet that changed her life. So impressed was she by the method of prayer, and the practical advice given in the book, that she “took it as her master”. She wrote “I was delighted with the book and determined to follow that way of prayer with all my might”. Within the space of only nine months, she began to experience passive and contemplative prayer, which detached her from creatures and filled her with a greater love of God. St. Teresa’s copy of The Third Spiritual Alphabet is preserved to this day in the Carmel of St. Joseph, in Avila.

Near the beginning of the book, the author discusses an aspect of the spiritual life which is often overlooked by spiritual writers, namely, the importance of gratitude to God. While this virtue is necessary for men of all ages, it is of particular importance for us today. For in our time, when the devil is unchained, when the Church is infested by the errors of liberalism and modernism, when the enemy is in charge of the citadel, and the world appears to be on the verge of catastrophe, how easy is it for us to forget to be thankful to God, and thereby to fail in the gratitude we owe to Him? Yet, as the author explains, if we fail to give thanks to God for the gifts we have received, regardless of the circumstances in which we live, the gifts themselves will grow stale and putrefy; and rather than serve as a means by which we can glorifying God and merit an eternal reward, our gifts themselves will produce rotten fruits and be the cause of our damnation.

He teaches that the gifts of God flow into our soul like water, and must be returned by thanksgiving. He compares the water of God’s gifts to a stream, and explains that our thanksgiving keeps the waters flowing, thereby enabling them to remain pure. If we fail to give sufficient thanks for what we have received, the flow will stop, and like water trapped in a marsh, will become putrid. He writes “if you hoard the gifts and do not return thanks to God, you will be like a bad river that fails to return to the sea because its waters are stopped up in pools and marshes where they grow stale and putrid, unfit for fish, swarming with dirty poisonous things”. He explains that by failing to return sufficient thanks to God, our gifts will corrupt, and instead of producing “the fish of good works”, they will “procreate vanity, boasting, and spiritual presumptuousness”, resulting in the gifts themselves becoming an abomination before God – “and the stench of the gifts putrefying in the pools and marshes of your malice will be an abomination before God”.

St. Thomas explains that gratitude is a special part of the cardinal virtue of Justice. Justice moves us to render to each one what is their due. Gratitude, being a part of justice, requires that we render thanks to our benefactor (one who has given us gifts). Now, since God is, as St. Thomas teaches, “the first principle of all good”, and since all the good we possess has been given to us freely by God, it is a matter of justice that we render to God thanks for what we have received. Failing to do so is an act of injustice toward God. St. Ambrose said “No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks”.

The degree of gratitude owed is determined by the greatness of the gift received. St. Thomas said “Thanksgiving in the recipient corresponds to the favor of the giver: so that when there is greater favor on the part of the giver, greater thanks are due on the part of the recipient” (1).

Now, if we consider the times in which we live, and how few have the true Faith today, we can understand how much gratitude those with the Faith owe to God who has given them this “pearl of great price” (Mt 13:46). While our gratitude can never equal the gifts we have received, we must at least do what we can to return thanks. “A poor man is certainly not ungrateful if he does what he can”, wrote St. Thomas. “For since kindness depends on the heart rather than on the deed, so too gratitude depends chiefly on the heart”. (2)

What will happen if those who have been given the gift of Faith fail to render thanks to God? As we saw above, when thanksgiving is not returned, the very gifts themselves grow stale and putrid, and produce only rotten fruits. What bad fruits would we expect to find in those who have the faith, yet fail in sufficient gratitude? We can arrive at an answer to this question by considering the two-fold effect that the light of faith produces: this supernatural light enables us to see the truth clearly, and consequently makes us more keenly aware of the evil and errors that surround us.

Now this two-fold effect of supernatural faith can produce good fruits, or bad fruits. According to St. Thomas, the good fruit is the purification of the heart. (3) But if we fail in giving due thanks to God, our waters will putrefy, and the light of faith, by which we more clearly perceive the evils of the world, will produce bitterness and rancor; and rather than purifying the heart and making man happy, these “fruits of corruption” will render him miserable. Similarly, if we fail to give thanks to God, even the clear knowledge of truth will produce corrupt fruits. Rather than making us humble, wondering why the good God has given us the Faith in an age of apostasy, we will become frustrated with those who can’t see the truth, and like the Pharisees of old, we will fail in charity toward them, and our putrefied waters “will procreate vanity, boasting, and spiritual presumptuousness”, thereby rendering us an abomination to God.

To remedy this evil, Francisco de Osuna advises us to be thankful in all things. He wrote: “Do not be like this, brother; awaken your soul to thank God for his kindness, thus heeding the council of our letter: ‘Let all your works abound in fervent thanks’.”

He teaches three methods of thanksgiving. The first is by deeds. This is seen in the martyrs who gave their life for Christ, and also in those who use their talents in the service of God. In our day, thankfulness in deeds can be shown in many ways, such as studying the Faith and professing it with courage. The second way of giving thanks proceeds from the heart. It consists in frequent loving affections for favors received, for those promised, and even, he adds, “for the ones lost through sin, for you are to be no less grateful for them than for those you safeguard”. He teaches that this second form of gratitude is maintained by meditating on the gifts God has given us. This will keep us from falling into pride on the one hand, and false humility on the other. Through pride we attribute the good we possess to ourselves rather than God, and by false humility we deny that God has given us any gifts for which we should be thankful. Both of these evils are remedied by meditating on the gifts we have received from God - the source of all good. “Do not let a day slip by without considering God’s favors” wrote Osuna; “praise and exalt His generosity. Faithfully remember the gifts bestowed by nature as well as those you enjoy by chance and grace…”. The third method of giving thanks is through words, by which we thank and praise God for the favors we have received. He wrote: “it is profitable to speak of God’s favors, for just [as] thinking about how we lack them moves us to fearful grief, [so too] realizing how blessed we are moves us to the most sublime joy”.

We should give thanks for all things, not only for the gifts of grace and spiritual favors received, but even gifts of nature – “you ought to bless the Lord therefore, for everything you see in yourself, knowing that all things are a blessing from him” (Osuna). We should remember to thank God for the things that we take for granted, such as our sight: “You yourself can appreciate this”, wrote Osuna, “if you consider the price you would pay for a pair of eyes if you were blind”. If sight was restored to a blind man, how thankful would he be for the rest of his life? Should we be any less thankful for being given our sight from birth?

He explains that we should give thanks to God in all things and at all times; not only in times of prosperity, but in times of adversity as well. Commenting on the inspired words of St. Paul, which tell us to give thanks to God “always for all things” (Eph 5:20), Osuna wrote: “We must interpret the apostle’s instructions on giving thanks in everything in two ways: We should always thank God for everything that happens to us, not only for what we consider good, but also that which wearies and distresses us and is contrary to our will”. Commenting on these same words of the Bible, St. Jerome wrote: “Only he who knows himself governed by God’s providence can keep this commandment”. “You should especially remember”, wrote Osuna, “that virtue for the good Christian is gratitude in the midst of persecution, and if you lack this virtue, you do not deserve to be called a faithful Christian.”

If we turn to the Bible, we find examples of holy men who blessed God and thanked Him, even in times of adversity. Job, for example, contrary to the advice given by his wife (Job 2:9), blessed God during the time of his misfortune, saying “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: as it hath pleased the Lord so is it done: blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Tobias remained thankful to God “all the days of his life”, even after being stricken blind! “Now this trial the Lord therefore permitted to happen to him, that an example might be given to posterity of his patience, as also of holy Job. For whereas he had always feared God from his infancy, and kept his commandments, he repined not against God because the evil of blindness had befallen him, but continued immoveable in the fear of God, giving thanks to God all the days of his life”. (Tobias 2:12-14)

In the book Uniformity with the Will of God, St. Alphonsus recounts the story of a holy monk, whose conformity to the will of God, and thankfulness to God in all things, transformed him into a great Saint. He wrote:

“Externally his religious observance was the same as that of the other monks, but he had attained such sanctity that the mere touch of his garments healed the sick. Marveling at these deeds, since his life was no more exemplary than the lives of the other monks, the superior asked him one day what was the cause of these miracles. He replied that he too was mystified and was at a loss how to account for such happenings. ‘What devotions do you practice?’ asked the abbot. He answered that there was little or nothing special that he did beyond making a great deal of willing only what God willed, and that God had given him the grace of abandoning his will totally to the will of God. ‘Prosperity does not lift me up, nor adversity cast me down,’ added the monk. ‘I direct all my prayers to the end that God's will may be done fully in me and by me’. ‘That raid that our enemies made against the monastery the other day, in which our stores were plundered, our granaries put to the torch and our cattle driven off -- did not this misfortune cause you any resentment?’ queried the abbot. ‘No, Father,’ came the reply. ‘On the contrary, I returned thanks to God -- as is my custom in such circumstances -- fully persuaded that God does all things, or permits all that happens, for his glory and for our greater good; thus I am always at peace, no matter what happens’. Seeing such uniformity with the will of God, the abbot no longer wondered why the monk worked so many miracles”.

Osuna speaks of two forms of thanksgiving. One form comes from us, while the other is infused into us by God as a reward for our fidelity. Speaking of the supernatural gratitude that comes to us from God, he wrote: “The soul is flooded with Our Lord’s love and it bursts forth and overflows on our lips, rushing forth in thanksgiving or such sweetness that the soul would like to be consumed, and it is exceedingly gladdened in the Lord, its tranquil conscience [is]witness to our feeling of being loved by God. The soul forgets about everything… the understanding considers only the source from which all this springs, and the will most lovingly thanks God. This thanksgiving is not hidden; in fact, we feel it so strongly in our exterior understanding and great joy, that we are sure everyone else can notice what is happening to us…”. This infused gratitude is the reward of those who remain faithful to God, rendering Him thanks even in the midst of trials.

Conclusion: In times of peace and prosperity it is easy to be thankful, but we must not forget to return thanks to God in difficult times as well, lest our waters stop flowing and grow putrid. Those who have received the gift of Faith in this time should be the most grateful men on earth; for it is they whom God has chosen during this Age of Darkness to give Him glory, and He expects us to render Him much thanks in return. Let us examine our conscience on this point, and if we find that our waters have begun to grow stale, we can begin at once to purify them by making acts of thanksgiving, and by having a Mass said in gratitude for all that we have received - even our crosses, which, when responded to properly, will sanctify our souls (1 Peter 5:10). May we not be like the nine lepers who failed to return thanks to God, but like the one who “fell on his face before his feet, giving thanks” (Luke 17:16). Let us begin now to purify or souls by rendering thanks to God for the gifts we have received, and “repay, little by little, all we owe to the One who has provided us every good thing… making ourselves worthy of greater gifts” (Osuna). In spite of the trials that we all endure, may we follow the example of the holy monk, and “in all things give thanks; for this is the will of God” (1 Thess 5:18).

1) Pt II-II Q 106, A 2
2) Pt II-II Q 106, A3, reply 5
3) Acts 15:9, Summa Pt II-II Q7, A2
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