The Virtue of Gratitude

All of us at The Catholic Thing wish all of you and your families a Blessed Thanksgiving.

Let us attempt to obtain a view of this gradually disappearing virtue – gratitude. Let us ask what is necessary so that gratitude may become possible.

Above all there is this: We can be grateful only to a person. Gratitude and petition are possible only between an “I” and a “Thou.” We cannot thank a law, a board, or a company. We may do so out of mere politeness when the proper sum is handed to us, in order to keep everything in the domain of good manners, but real gratitude does not enter into the matter, for gratitude is the expression of a personal encounter in human need.

But two persons, one of whom is situated so that he has something or can do something, while the other has not or cannot – these stand face to face. The one asks and the other is ready; the one gives and the other thanks; and the two are united by a human tie. Here gratitude is possible, and it becomes a basis for community.

Furthermore, gratitude is possible only in the realm of freedom. For the fact that the sun rises in the morning or, to express it scientifically, that the earth comes into such a position in relation to the sun that it becomes visible: for this I am not grateful. It is certainly true that on a bright morning very lively sentiments of gratitude may arise because something so powerful and beautiful is taking place. But these are the responses of man to Him who has created all, or else they are the after-effects of a time in which the sun itself was revered as a divinity. . . . .

Nor do I thank when I have a rightful claim upon something. If I have bought some article and it is delivered to me, I do not thank, but I give a receipt: ”Such or such a thing received in good condition.” If I have made an agreement on the basis of which another person must perform some service, then I do not thank him afterwards but say: “It is right” – anything beyond this is mere politeness.

True gratitude can exist only in the realm of the voluntary. The more our attitude toward human affairs approaches our attitude toward mechanical functions – this board regulates traffic, another the conditions of labor, one thing must be done according to the law at this time, another thing at another time – the less room there will be for the free response of the heart which says, “I thank you.” Its place is taken by the statement that says one has received his due.


A third condition necessary for gratitude is this: he who gives must do so with reverence for the one who receives; otherwise, he wounds the receiver’s self-respect. He must not give with indifference; neither must he play the part of one who condescends; neither must he desire to show his power by the gift. A danger for all in social service is the desire to feel their power, for the person in need is, as such, weaker than the one who helps, and when he thanks for the assistance, he admits his weakness thereby.

All this makes gratitude difficult. If the one who helps lets the other feel his superiority, then gratitude dies and in its place we find humiliation and resentment. How many persons who receive would like to throw the gift into the giver’s face.

So there are three important conditions. Gratitude can only exist between an “I” and a “thou.” As soon as the consciousness of the personal quality disappears and the idea of the apparatus prevails, gratitude dies. Gratitude can exist only in the realm of freedom. As soon as there is a “must” or a claim, gratitude loses its meaning. Gratitude can exist only with reverence. If there is no mutual respect, gratitude perishes and turns to resentment. Anyone who gives assistance to others should think about that. Only the assistance which makes gratitude possible really deserves the name.

True asking and giving, true receiving and thanking are fine and are human in the deepest sense of the word. They are based upon the consciousness that we stand together in our need. Accidentally here and now one person has something, the other does not; one person can and the other cannot. Tomorrow it may be the other way around. . . .

Who knows how much of this can be referred to God? Who knows – if we may speak in this way – what God feels when we not merely perform our duty toward Him, but give Him love; when our littleness strives to be generous towards Him? Then there is something in God which we may faintly and distantly indicate by the word gratitude, very briefly, then it plunges into mystery. But someday He will show us how He received our gift, and that will be a part of our blessedness.


*Image: Prayer before the Meal by Vicente Manansala, 1960 [National Museum of the Philippines, Manila]

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Servant of God Fr. Romano Guardini (1885 – 1968), author and academic, was one of the most important figures in Catholic intellectual life in the 20th-century. This essay is adapted from his most famous book, The Lord. He was a mentor to such prominent theologians as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger.