The Catholic Thing
Gratitude Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Gratitude is easy to praise, hard to practice. I’m not talking about the promiscuous thank- you-ing we do now – mostly, I think, in imitation of sales people. Even the priests at St. Patrick’s in Washington, where I go during the week, thank the congregation at the end of Mass for coming, as if we were doing them or God some favor. This is gratitude-lite run amok. But there’s a gratitude that goes much deeper and farther.

Gratitude is easy when someone is doing something good for us, or when things are going “swimmingly,” as Bertie sometimes puts it to Jeeves. But after the immediate moment or when we haven’t seen someone for a while, the old Jewish joke comes into full force: “Yeah, great, but what have you done for me lately?”

A young theologian I know once cracked, hearing the casual way people talk about being “grateful” to God, that he more often found in himself a deep resentment that the universe didn’t automatically bend to his every whim. He wasn’t recommending this attitude, of course, just pointing out that, as a fallen soul, he finds a lot inside himself that is candidly not grateful to God – for the world and even the promise of eternal life. Sometimes, thanks to God come spontaneously. Usually, it takes hard work to get to the point where we can truly say thank you to God and to others.

Certain cultures. I’m told, don’t even have words for thank you. Japan didn’t until the Portuguese explorers and missionaries landed there. Somehow formal gratitude then began to be put into words and the Portuguese obrigado (“obliged”) morphed into the now-familiar Japanese expression arrigato. It would be interesting to delve deeper into this. Japanese doubtless expressed gratitude previously, since as human beings they certainly felt it, at least towards other human beings. But how and why no direct way to say it?

As Americans, we always begin Thanksgiving Day at an advantage in the gratitude department. How can you not be grateful to live in this country? I know, I know. I dislike plenty about it, too, but we still enjoy a life of abundance and liberty as few human beings in history. Even our poor. The iPod of a ghetto dweller probably contains more – and more varied – music than kings and queens had at their disposal in the past. I wish it were Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or even Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. (It’s probably more often Lady Gaga, Lil Wayne, other rappers – whom our young president claims to have in his iPod.) But the right education – which would have to come from outside state schools – could bring much to life. And that’s just for music – and for starters.

    Giving thanks: A Mass in St. Augustine, 1565

Speaking of the president, I noted his Thanksgiving remarks (I’m following from Rome and may have this slightly wrong) seem to have ditched the classic holiday gratitude to God for our good fortunes as a nation. Instead, he wandered off into some rhetorical thicket from which he emerged in the general direction of a few politically correct remarks praising multiculturalism – which is to say, thanking favored ethnic groups for their contributions to American society – and presumably to future election campaigns.

The real multiculturalism at Thanksgiving was actually quite different and required no government sponsorship. People of various kinds came and prospered using new resources. Turkeys were discovered here. Ever wonder why they’re called turkeys? It’s because people back in Europe knew they came from elsewhere and, wrongly, guessed the Eastern Mediterranean. The French even went further afield: dinde or dindon clearly indicate the bird was regarded as Indian. Corn, known variously in European languages as mais (Mayan) or granturco (Turkish grain), shows similar geographical groping. Europeans still generally do not eat corn, thinking it’s more animal fodder than an American delicacy.

And then there are potatoes, unknown to Europe until the Age of Exploration; hundreds of Latin American varieties are still all but unknown. Again, that’s just the food. Where would we be today without it?

In the United States, we wrap this culinary history in a myth about the White Puritan grateful to the Red Indian. It’s a good yarn for purposes of national solidarity, but Christianity is the one element in the foundational mix that we will NOT hear much about in the celebration, except as a tool of conquest. In the West, we’ve carried our self- contempt so far that we also insult the warriors and hunters among the native Americans by trying to make them appear followers of Gandhi’s non-violence before the fact. In an attack on ourselves, we’ve distorted our history and theirs. How many textbooks have appeared now in which the Indians are dancers with wolves and the Pilgrims were merely “people who go on long voyages”?

But let’s lay that aside today and celebrate all that there is to celebrate: a great history of a great nation, imperfect as all human things are, but worthy of our gratitude and love. We’ve been given much and have much to be grateful for. One serious way to express gratitude is to make as good use as possible of what we have received. And we can only do that when, like all the key figures in early American history, we turn to THE source of all good. When we understand that we were not the ultimate cause of our blessings in the past or the present, and will not be in the future – even in the fiction of multicultural service to one another – we can show gratitude by working calmly and vigorously in the sure hope that He who blessed us in the past will never fail to do so in the future – in his own wonderful, unpredictable wisdom.        

HAPPY THANKSGIVING from The Catholic Thing!

Robert Royal
is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Joe, November 25, 2010
On this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful:

· For babies, which is God’s way of saying that life should go on.

· For loving and patient mothers and fathers.

· For wives, husbands, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, good friends and, of course, grandmas and grandpas.

· For the teachers, police, firefighters and public servants and all those devoted to better education and government.

· For the in-laws were have learned to like, and even those we don’t.

· For our fellow Americans, who share in the bounty and blessings of a great and good land from sea to shining sea.

· For our wonderful dogs and cats and the other animals who are part of God’s grand creation who give us unconditional love and companionship.

· For the food we eat, the roofs that shelter us, the clothes that keep us warm.

· For America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, which, despite all her flaws, is still the greatest nation on earth.

· For the blessings of liberty and the brotherhood of man.

· For the peacemakers, though they may seem to be few, who are out there preaching love instead of hate.

· For our courageous and dedicated men and women in uniform, who serve at home and abroad and are willing to pay the ultimate price for freedom.

· For the fine arts and especially music, without which as one philosopher put it, life would be a mistake.

· For good books, starting with the best-seller of all time, the Bible, which imparts all the wisdom of life if we have eyes to see and ears to hear and a mind to understand.

· For smiles and kindness, either spoken or unspoken, which brighten our days and gladden our hearts.

· For the hope, faith and charity that God instills in every person that we may pass it on to others.

· Most of all, for God Who gave us life and came to earth more than 2,000 years ago to tell us that we might have life more abundantly if we only believe in Him.
written by Ray Hunkins, November 25, 2010
Amen Joe and I would add one more: Thank you Mr. Royal, to you and your colleagues for your erudite offerings on The Catholic Thing.
written by Robert Royal, November 25, 2010
Ray, we're grateful to all our readers as well. We know that this little cosa nostra is the work of many lines of grace.
written by Louise, November 25, 2010
I don't know any more what I am thankful for, and I am still searching for an answer to the question that I asked a few months ago: If the Founding Fathers had been Catholic, could they have written the Declaration of Independence and could they have devised a government based upon it and the Constitution. Are these documents a product of a certain stage of the Enlightenment or are they religious documents or at least documents that still acknowledge the divine source of our rights?

Yes, yes, I know. I am confusing the holidays. This is the day of Pilgrims (I grew up just a few miles from that rock) and the Founding Fathers were still a century and a half in the future (Faneuil Hall is just a few miles in the other direction), and it seems that all our national holidays merge in the national consciousness and that Bunker Hill, Faneuil Hall, and Philadelphia were the natural results of the landing at Plymouth rock.

My question remains: Gather together in one room, Robert Bellarmine, Augustine, Dominic, Francis,Teresa, Ignatius, -- as many as you want. Give them, with all their Catholic intellect and spiritual sensitivities, love of God and neighbor, the assignment: create a document under which a free people can govern themselves and still remain free, in perpetuity. Could they do it? Or are we, as Catholics, simply foreigners on foreign soil, appreciating this heritage but not really a part of it? Apart from the obvious (no lasting resting place, etc.), will we always be strangers and sojourners, in but not of our (the, someone else's) country?
written by Ray Hunkins, November 25, 2010
Louise: Your question has haunted me and since no one else has come forward let me offer this: No one can say with certainty what your hypothetical might have yielded, but I can offer an opinion. Not only could Catholics have participated in writing the Declaration of Independence, one did. Charles Carroll of Maryland, a Catholic of Irish decent, risked his life, his fortune and his sacred honor with the other founders, when he signed the Declaration. This, despite his own colony's prohibition against Catholics being politically active. Carroll said latter, "to obtain religious as well as civil liberty, I entered zealously in the revolution." After the Constitution was adopted Carroll served our country as a U.S. Senator and helped found the Nation's first diocese (Baltimore). No doubt Carroll felt comfortable with the Declaration because natural law principals shaped it. Natural law has its roots in medieval Catholic thought, drawing on the ancients. Carroll and his colleagues were not inventing rights, but declaring rights inherent in nature.
It is not possible to pluck actors in the human drama from history and insert them in a different generation. But there is nothing the fathers of our country said in our founding documents that I can think of which would have alarmed the Fathers of the Church.
Grandchildren are calling for me to carve the turkey. Hope this helps. Happy thanksgiving.
written by Robert Royal, November 25, 2010
Louise: let me offer a different, brief answer. Why do you expect that those saints -- or the Church as a whole -- would produce a system of political philosophy or practical politics? There are moral principles -- respect for life, for conscience -- that all systems must guarantee, and the Church has coexisted with several kinds of systems. But lots of a political foundation is a matter of human reasoning, and the Church doesn't necessarily have any inisght into that any more than it does into biology or economics. There's no one "Catholic" form of government and can't be, even though there are many that definitely contradict Catholic truths. You can feel at home in America in the human sense of being at home.
written by Louise, November 25, 2010
Thank you, Mr. Hunkins and Mr. Royal. I appreciate and value your words and advice. I must be in really tough shape when I am advised that I can feel at home in America. Growing up where I did, I lived with and absorbed a strong love of country. It was instilled in us every day of grammar school and high school and at home. It is only since becoming Catholic (after 70 years of self-identifying as a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee) that I have felt this internal division and conflict within my mind and heart. For example, the title of Fr. Schall's book, "The Mind that Is Catholic", creates a cognitive dissonance in my "mind that is American," because I know that they are not the same mind and I wonder if they are even compatible. It seems that, at every turn, my love of country is at odds with Church teaching, and I don't see a resolution on the horizon. I see only internal conflict, and, frankly, if I were forced to choose now, I couldn't trust myself to choose correctly. The country that I love is in mortal danger, from within and without, and the Church that I love .. . . well, I don't know about the Church that I love. Sometimes I see Her as aiding and abetting her enemies, both from within and without.

Thank you both again for your kindness and putting up with my ramblings. I trust that all will be resolved if not in this life than in the next. I love The Catholic Thing, BTW. Thank you for your work in bringing it to us. I hope that you had a happy Thanksgiving.
written by debby, November 29, 2010
To my sister Louise, in the event that you even check back....
as a younger sister in the Lord and also a convert, let me say that you are a deep thinker and much of what you write often resonates with me. i have found the "resolution on the horizon" you speak of for myself, maybe it will help you as well. It is simple but often almost impossible in my flesh to do. "Love God with ALL your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself." When we live this, as best we possibly can knowing that our Lady-Mom will make up within Her Motherhood for all that we lack, we are both reconciled with God and with all the world. American ideology, European, African, Asian, Masculine, Feminine, Married life, Single life, Religious Vocation, etc., all are expressions within WHO WE ARE as created in His own image and will be perfected as we love God and love others. Sometimes the answers to our struggles are quite simple and Jesus already has answered them. A priest who was my director for over 10 years used to encourage me to "mortify my intelligence" because i over-analyzed life and sometimes forgot to live it. God made you and placed you in America. Be the best Catholic American you can for the rest of your days!! And try to rest in Him. He holds us all in His hands....
xo and Blessed Awaiting our Lord's birth.
God bless America. God bless the whole world.
written by Achilles, November 29, 2010
Dear Louise,
I initiate this attempt at a brief answer with the clear admission that I am much the intellectual junior of You, Mr. Hunkins, and Dr. Royal. Perhaps not in this case, but sometimes, the simpler can see things more simply.
I much appreciate your questions, your sincerity and vulnerability in putting them out there. I assert that the seeds that will eventually bare healthy fruit to all of our questions of this nature find their resolution in the cultivation of Christ’s words “be in the world but not of the world.” See how Christ also, in Mathew 10:16, as he was sending out his disciples out to the cities as “sheep among wolves” he exhorted “be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” We are to use our critical minds to understand the Truths written on our hearts, that all humans are holy and command our unconditional charity, but we are not to be foolish about principles and unprincipled actions, in other words our idea of “tolerance” in America is so highly corrupted that it no doubt leads many to skepticism. Another Schall book worth several looks is The Order of Things. It seems to me that in the order of cultivating a Catholic Mind, proper order is the only hope of the True Freedom of which we inquire.
Louise, I am a recent convert too and I have many questions as you do. They are good questions and require our serious attempt to resolve the cognitive dissonance.

Happy thanksgiving to you all, I am so thankful for TCT and all the commenters. Achilles

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