If we had to name any one thing that seems unaccountably to have fallen out of most men’s practical religion altogether, it would be the duty of thanksgiving. It is not easy to exaggerate the common neglect of this duty. There is little enough of prayer; but there is still less of thanksgiving. For every million Our Fathers and Hail Marys that rise up from the earth to avert evils or to ask graces, how many do you suppose follow after in thanksgiving for the evils averted or the graces given?
Alas! It is not hard to find the reason for this. Our own interests drive us obviously to prayer; but it is love alone that leads to thanksgiving. A man who wants only to avoid hell knows that he must pray; he has no such strong instinct impelling him to thanksgiving.
It is the old story. Never did prayer come more from the heart than the piteous cry of those ten lepers who beheld Jesus entering into a town. Their desire to be heard made them courteous and considerate. They stood afar off, lest He should be angry if they with their foul disease came too near Him.
Alas! They did not truly know that dear Lord or how He had lowered Himself to be counted as a leper for the sons of men. They lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When the miracle was wrought, the nine went on in selfish joy to show themselves to the priest; but one, only one, and he an outcast Samaritan, when he saw that he was made clean, went back, with a loud voice glorifying God, and he fell on his face before our Savior’s feet, giving thanks.
Even the Sacred Heart of Jesus was distressed and, as it were, astonished, and He said, “Were not ten made clean? And where are the nine? There is no one found to return and give glory to God but this stranger!”
How many a time have we not caused the same sad surprise to the Sacred Heart!
When the neglect of a duty is as shocking as is surely the neglect of thanksgiving, it is desirable to show the amount of obligation that rests on us in the matter; and this can best be done by the authority of Scripture.
St. Paul tells the Ephesians that we are to be “giving thanks always for all things, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God and the Father.” Again, we are “to abound unto all simplicity, which worketh through us thanksgiving to God.” The Philippians are admonished, “Be nothing solicitous; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your petitions be made known to God.” To the Colossians the apostle Paul says, “As ye have received Jesus Christ the Lord, walk ye in Him, rooted and built up in Him, and confirmed in the faith, as also you have learned, abounding in Him with thanksgiving”; and again, “Be constant in prayer, watching in it in thanksgiving.”
Creatures are said to be created to be received with thanksgiving by the faithful, and by them that have known the truth: “for every creature of God is good, and nothing to be rejected, that is received with thanksgiving.” It was the very characteristic of the heathen, that “when they knew God, they have not glorified him as God, nor given thanks.”
What is our life on earth but a preparation for our real life in heaven? And yet praise and thanksgiving are the very occupations of our life in heaven. What is the language of the angels, ancients, and living creatures of the Apocalypse, but, “Amen! Benediction and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, honor, and power, and strength, to our God for ever and ever, Amen?”
We are constantly invoking our Blessed Lady, the angels, and the saints, and we know and are sure that they are always praying for us in heaven; yet am I not right in saying that when we make pictures of heaven in our own minds, it is not so often prayer we picture, as praise and thanksgiving?
Nay, sometimes when death has been at hand and the life of heaven has cast its light forward over God’s servants, they have seemed almost to forget prayer, and as if they were already in hearing of the angelic songs and had caught the note, they occupy with thanksgiving those awful hours that most of all in life seem to need tremulous petition and the strife of prayer.
Thus, when Blessed Paul of the Cross lay dangerously ill, he passed his days in the utterance of thanksgiving and praise, often repeating with particular devotion those words from the Gloria “We give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory!” This had always been his favorite spontaneous prayer, and he had frequently exhorted his religious to use it whenever they had any particular undertaking in hand, saying with particular earnestness, “For the great glory of God.” At other times, prostrating himself in spirit before the throne of the Most Blessed Trinity, he fervently exclaimed, “Sanctus, sanctus,” or “Benedictio et claritas,” which he used to call the song of paradise.
Now, the Church on earth reflects the Church in heaven; the worship of the one is the echo of the worship of the other. If the life in heaven is one of praise and thanksgiving, so in its measure must be the life on earth.
The very center of all our worship is the Eucharist; that is, as the word imports, a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Everything catches its tone from this. Everything in the Church radiates out from the Blessed Sacrament. The Spirit of the Eucharist must be found everywhere. Even the Jews felt that all prayer must one day cease, except the prayer of thanksgiving, as Wetstein tells us out of the Talmud.
But we have to do with it now as part of our service of love. Let us suppose that the true idea of worship was the one implied in the common practice of most men that it was simply a matter of prayer to a superior Being.
What relation does this put us in with God? He is our king, our superior, a keeper of treasures, Himself infinite wealth. We go to Him to ask for something. He is to us what a rich man is to a beggar. Our own interest is the prominent part of the matter.
Or we are afraid of His justice. We desire to be let off our punishment and have our sins forgiven. He is full of pity and will hear us if we are importunate. Taking prayer only as the whole of worship, we can rise no higher than this.
It is all very true and very necessary besides. Prayer can teach us to depend on God, and answered prayer to trust in Him. But Infinite Goodness will not let us rest on such terms with Him. We are to be with Him for all eternity; He is to be our everlasting joy; to know Him and to love Him is life; and the love of Him is the joyful praise of Him forever.
As the spirit of oblation, the permission to give God gifts, at once brings us into a dearer and more familiar relation with God, so also does the spirit of thanksgiving. To thank a benefactor simply to get more from him is not thanksgiving but a flattering form of petition.
We thank God because we love Him, because His love of us touches us, surprises us, melts us, wins us. Indeed, so much is thanksgiving a matter of love that we shall thank Him most of all in heaven, when He has given us His crowning gift of the Beatific Vision, when He has given us all of Himself that we can contain, and so there is nothing left for us to receive.
Thanksgiving is therefore of the very essence of Catholic worship; and as the practice of it increases our love, so does the neglect of it betoken how little love we have.
Ah! If we have reason to pity God, if we may dare so to speak with St. Alphonso, because men sin against His loving Majesty, still more reason have we to do so when we see how scanty and how cold are the thanksgivings offered up to Him.
Nothing is so odious among men as ingratitude; yet it is the daily and hourly portion of Almighty God. There is no telling what He has done for men; there is no exhausting the mines of His abundant mercy, implied by each one of His titles, Creator, King, Redeemer, Father, Shepherd.
He loves to be thanked, because all He wants of us is love; and that He should be pleased to want it is itself an infinite act of love. He has chosen to put His glory upon our gratitude; and yet we will not give it Him!
What is worst of all, this affront does not come, like open sin, from those who are His enemies, and in whose conversion His compassion can gain such glory among men; but it comes from His own people, from those who frequent the sacraments, and make a profession of piety, from those whom He is daily loading with the special and intimate gifts of His Holy Spirit.
Many of us are shocked at sin and sacrilege; we go sad and downcast in the days of the world’s carnival; scandal hurts us; heresy is positive suffering, a pungent bitterness, like smoke in our eyes.
It is well. Yet we too go on refusing God His glory by our neglect of thanksgiving. We could glorify Him so cheaply: and yet it hardly comes into our thoughts.
Can we then be said to love Him truly and really? What have we to do? How often shall I say it? To love God and to give Him glory. God forbid we should so much as dream that we had anything else to do.
Let us, then, go about the world seeking these neglected pearls of our heavenly Father’s glory and offering them to Him. How is it that we have the heart to wish to do anything but this? Some of His servants have even desired not to die, that they might stay on earth to glorify Him by more suffering.
Such wishes are not for us; but they may do us good; for they help to show us how little love we have, and I must think that to find this out is everything. I can believe that men are deceived, and think they love God when they do not love Him, or that they wish to love Him and do not know how. But can anyone know how little he loves God, and how easily he can love Him more, and yet not wish to do so? Jesus died to prevent the possibility of this; and can He have died in vain?
You must bear with me if I repeat this once more. We do not find fault with sinners who are living out of the grace of God and away from the sacraments, because they do not make thanksgiving. They have something else to do. They have to do penance, and to reconcile themselves with God, and wash their souls afresh in the Precious Blood of Jesus.
The neglect of thanksgiving is an ingratitude that our dear Lord has to impute to His own forgiven children, who are living in His peace, and in the enjoyment of all His privileges.
Now, this deserves to be especially noted. I do not know if you will agree with me, but to my mind the faults of good people — I do not mean slips and infirmities, but cold, heartless faults — have something especially odious about them. A sin is not so shocking a thing to look at, for all its intrinsic deadliness; and this may be the reason why, in the Apocalypse, God breaks out with such unusual and vivid language about lukewarmness and tepidity.
When the angels asked our Lord as He ascended, “What are those wounds in Thy hands?” how much is insinuated in His reply, “The wounds wherewith I was wounded in the house of my friends!” It would be worthwhile writing a treatise entitled On the Sins of Good People; for they are many and various and have a peculiar malice and hatefulness of their own. Unthankfulness is one of the chief of them.
At least, then, bear this in mind while we are talking of thanksgiving. Here is a matter that has to do entirely with good Catholics, with men and women who pray and frequent the sacraments and form the devout portion of our congregations. If there be any reproach in the matter, it all lies on them.
Really, it is almost a comfort to be able to say this. Dry people are ordinarily so self-righteous that it is a positive comfort to get them up into a corner and to be able to say to them, “Now we have nothing to do with sinners at present; you cannot put the sharp things upon them. You are the guilty people; the reproof is all for you; here is something that, if you do not do and do well for God, you are a wretch. Wretch, you know, is the very word, the acknowledged epithet for the ungrateful. Well! And with all your prayers and sacraments, you do not do it. It is an ugly inference you will have to draw. Yet why not take a good heart, both you and I, and say an honest Confiteor and arrange with God for a little more grace, and then He shall see how different our future practice is to be?”
From the particular faults of good people, deliver us, O Lord!
This article is adapted from a section in The Little Book of Holy Gratitude by Fr. Frederick Faber, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
Art for this post on gratitude: Cover and interior images used with permission.