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Never too late: Why Aquinas recommends waiting a bit to say thanks


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Paul E. Cator - published on 11/23/18

And what we can do to keep from forgetting ...

Thanksgiving is a time when I recall the many blessings and graces I am thankful for—and, being the self-critical introvert that I am, reproach myself for all the times I have forgotten or failed to thank God and others! I find myself often looking back in hindsight and praying, “Thank You, God, for all Your blessings—especially those for which I have not yet thanked You, and those I have not even recognized as blessings!”

Sometimes I wonder: Am I too late?

It’s never too late

St. Thomas Aquinas addresses this very question, in the Summa Theologica, “Whether a man is bound to repay a favor at once” (IIa IIae, Q 106, a. 4). Reading his answer was a bit of a surprise—and a relief!

We are not bound, he says, to show our thanks immediately. In fact, St. Thomas advises that it is often best to wait to show gratitude until a suitable time. (He is speaking primarily of giving thanks to human benefactors; but as God sees every moment—even the past and future—as an eternal “now,” it’s never too late to give thanks to Him.) Sometimes, in the moment, we are not in the right frame of mind to properly express our thanks. If we are too hasty to give thanks, we may be motivated more by the feeling of a need to repay a debt or to follow the rules of common courtesy, rather than by a genuine, loving sense of gratitude. St. Thomas quotes the Roman philosopher Seneca: “He that wishes to repay too soon, is an unwilling debtor, and an unwilling debtor is ungrateful.”

Nevertheless, St. Thomas says that we should try to be grateful in our heart immediately. It’s not always easy, but this beautiful prayer of the Church, taken from the “Mass for Giving Thanks to God,” can help to remind us, and to ask God for help in being grateful:

O God, the Father of every gift, we confess that all we have and are comes down from You; teach us to recognize the effects of Your boundless care and to love You with a sincere heart and with all our strength.

Evening thanksgiving

St. Francis de Sales gives more advice for training our minds and hearts to be grateful (Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 2, 11).  He recommends forming the habit of taking time every evening before bed to do the following:

  1. Thank God for having preserved you through the day past.
  2. Examine how you have conducted yourself through the day.
  3. If you have done anything good, offer thanks to God; if you have done amiss in thought, word, or deed, ask forgiveness of His Divine Majesty, resolving to confess the fault when opportunity offers, and to be diligent in doing better.
  4. Then commend your body and soul, the Church, your relations and friends, to God. Ask that the Saints and Angels may keep watch over you, and with God’s Blessing go to the rest He has appointed for you.

Following the saint’s advice helps us to reflect more on God’s goodness, so we won’t forget to be thankful!

Here’s a prayer by St. Richard of Chichester, an English bishop who lived in the 13th century. One tradition reports that he said this prayer on his deathbed—and it would make a good prayer for offering thanksgiving at the end of the day:

Thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits and blessings which you have given me, for all the pains and insults which you have borne for me. Merciful Friend, Brother and Redeemer, may I know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day.
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