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The Life of Virtue - Gratitude

Monday, July 27, 2009
Whilst most people would agree that we should be grateful for the good things we have received, thanking someone is not always the first thing that comes to mind when we receive something good from them. In Luke's Gospel, when Jesus healed the ten lepers, only one of them came back to thank him. The inclination to give thanks is the virtue of gratitude and it perfects our capacity for acknowledging the benefits we have received.

Gratitude is the part of justice whereby we pay what is due to our benefactors. It is distinguished from the virtue of religion by which we pay what is due to God and piety by which we pay what is due to our parents. Ultimately God is the source of all good things, and so all our indebtedness is primarily due to Him, but part of the debt we owe to God is to be paid by honouring our parents and showing gratitude to our benefactors.

[left: the winning contrada (district of the city) gather in the cathedral of Siena to thank Our Lady for their victory in the palio]

St Thomas argues that as far as possible, we should always show gratitude to our benefactors, but the way and the extent to which we show our gratitude will vary according to circumstances. People may do us favours for a variety of mixed motives, but when we excel in the virtue of gratitude, we more readily see the good in people's actions rather than the evil, and it is for the good that we give them thanks.

St Thomas also gives advice on the manner in which we should thank our benefactors. For an act to be benevolent, it doesn't depend so much on the deed itself, but rather on the heart of the benefactor being directed to the good of the beneficiary. Likewise, the gratitude shown to a benefactor originates in the heart. It doesn't matter if someone is too poor to give a benefactor anything they might need. No matter how poor someone is, they can still show honour and speak well of someone else. In other situations, it may be possible for a beneficiary to show their gratitude to a benefactor by doing some act of kindness in return. In such situations there is the danger a favour might be returned out of a desire not to be indebted to someone rather than out of a sense of gratitude. But part of the virtue of gratitude is being happy to be indebted to someone. The virtue of gratitude involves choosing the appropriate moment for repaying a favour.

The great challenge in being truly grateful, is that it is not enough just to return what has been received. Since the original gift was freely given, the favour returned should also be freely given. This implies something more has to be paid back, and we are only able to do this if we let gratitude flow from our hearts.

Robert Verrill OP


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