One thing I still remember from my college cultural anthropology class with Sr. Leslie Ellen Straub, O.P., is the principle of reciprocity. Reciprocity refers to the exchange of goods or services in which case a return is eventually expected. For example, if someone gives me a birthday gift or if someone takes me out to dinner, I want to respond in kind by doing the same for them — I want to reciprocate. The principle of reciprocity verifies how indispensable giving thanks is to being human.
Giving thanks is a kind of confession. A fundamental truth of life is that to be myself I need another. I did not create myself; I do not sustain myself in existence. Someone else did and does. Someone else provides the oxygen, the food, and the water I require to stay alive. It is supremely reasonable to reach out to that Someone in thanks for the countless provisions He effects in my life. The more I confess my thanks to him, acknowledging all he gives me and makes possible for me, the more human I become. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he feels a profound sense of gratitude and has no one to thank.”
Giving thanks is the most appropriate response to God’s gift of salvation.When I take stock of the boundless mercy, the compassion, the generosity, and the benevolence that overflows in my life, I need to respond.
“How else do we accept His free gift of salvation if not with thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is the evidence of our acceptance of whatever He gives. Thanksgiving is the manifestation of our Yes! to His grace” (Ann Voskamp).
We give thanks in order to gain holy self-knowledge. A thankful heart produces in us a most humble and realistic perspective on the world. Blessed Julian of Norwich (+1423) notes,
“Thanksgiving is a real, interior knowledge. With great reverence and loving fear, it turns us with all our powers to do whatever our good Lord indicates. It brings joy and gratitude within. Thanksgiving is a blessed thing in the Lord’s sight.”
We give thanks to create communion. The thanks we give acknowledge how much we rely on others for our well-being. The more thankful we are, the more we belong to each other. We belong to what makes us thankful.
When we give thanks we protect ourselves from presumption. Thanksgiving saves us from taking things for granted. It uproots any sense of entitlement in us. St. Francis Xavier Cabrini warned that ingratitude “dries up the fountain of divine graces.” Anything that we are not thankful for, we lose. St. Bernard counsels:
“In fact, the only thing that can stop our progress after our conversion is our ingratitude. Happy the person who gives thanks from the bottom of their heart, even for the least blessings, regarding everything they receive as a purely gratuitous gift.”
We give thanks to find the meaning in life.Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that “in ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.” To give thanks is to open new horizons on our life.
We give thanks to stay rooted in the supernatural.When we are thankful, we live in awe of the good things that come our way, even though we don’t deserve them. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” The “essential form of Christian worship,” wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, “is rightly called ‘Eucharistia,’ thanksgiving. It consists in man’s letting himself be endowed with gifts. We worship God by dropping the fiction of a realm in which we could face him as independent business partners. Christian sacrifice does not consist in a giving of what God would not have without us but in our becoming totally receptive and letting ourselves be completely taken over by him.” As a Preface for Mass expresses it, “Our thanksgiving is itself your gift.”