Thanks within Thanks

Let us suppose that on Thanksgiving Day your mother, a woman of outstanding Catholic piety and adorned with the virtues, has baked an artisanal loaf of sourdough bread and, having sliced off a piece, has placed it still steaming, buttered, before you on a plate.  Smiling, she awaits your response.

Something of the highest nobility has been done for you, and now it becomes a test, to see whether your character is appropriate to the gift.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, to respond properly to this kindness, you must draw upon four distinct virtues – not one, but four.  These virtues are as if “nested,” because the “principles” or causes of the bread’s being given to you are themselves nested.

The First Cause of your having received this bread is God, who made you and your mother, and her virtues, and the wheat and everything else – God who is still intimately concerned with them, knowing even the number of molecules in the slice (like the hairs on your head) and – let’s not omit it – also its flavor-fulness and crumb, and how it specially delights you.

This original cause of good requires on your part the response of “due cult” (as St. Thomas puts it).  And so, you say a blessing, perhaps the traditional “Hamotzi” (“who brings forth”), like the one Jesus would have said:

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu …

“Blessed are You Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

To respond properly to this gift here and now, of this particular piece of bread, it becomes due, to you, to worship God.

What you say in worship is indeed a “blessing.” We call it “saying grace.”  Yet “grace” here means expressing that we take pleasure (Latin: gratus) in the gift and the giver.

Or we can call it giving a “thank” – the original term was singular, related to “think” – meaning that we think of, we tarry in thought upon, the gift and the giver with delight.  But because, strictly, we are thus turning with “thanks” towards the one we recognize as our Creator, we are worshipping God, through the virtue of religion.  So religion is the first of the four virtues that we must show.

But the cause or “principle” of your receiving the bread there is not merely God, your creator, but also your mother, your co-creator – without whom you would not have been born, and would not have survived to sit there, and would not have learned the word “bread,” or good manners in eating it, or that you should smile, and chew 21 times (or whatever), and break the bread before taking a bite.


And likely it was your mother who taught you the words even to “say grace.”  And so yes, a machine might stuff bread down your throat. But that you are in a position to “take and eat” it as a human being is mainly the work of your mother and father.  “Everything that is received is received in the manner of the recipient,” and this manner – “good manners” – is given to you by that woman there.

Now, a specific type of reverence and indeed “worship” (in the old sense) is due to our parents as such.  You know exactly what this is if your mom has passed away, because no one else can give you bread in the way that it was your mom who gave you bread.  St. Thomas calls the habit of showing such reverence, “piety.”  So this is the second virtue you need to draw upon: piety, nested within religion.

And if as is likely your mother taught piety to you also, then “your giving thanks is itself her gift.” But she is God’s gift, and thus “Thank you, mom” is twice nested within “Thank you, God.”

But then your mother, we are supposing, is adorned with grace and virtues.  Suppose she were St. Zélie Guérin Martin (the mother of St. Thérèse of Lisieux), or St. Wiktoria Ulma.  But perhaps it’s enough to say:  she’s a baptized wife and mother in the state of grace.  Such a dignity is already not natural: it is literally out of this world.

Or simply ponder what any mother can claim by way of achievement: the dignity and merits of nights getting up with her children, scrubbing floors and cleaning, of feeling cares and shedding tears, of shopping for you and the never-ending car rides – all those dignities we honor mothers for (we used to honor mothers for) on Mother’s Day. She has them even when it is not Mother’s Day.

If a king or ambassador – if Travis Kelce – had brought you the bread, you would have been overcome with astonishment.  “Jordan Peterson was in my house, and he thought to cut a slice of bread and bring it to me.”  But one greater than Jordan Peterson (for you) is here.

A distinct virtue is needed for recognizing such excellence, and for seeing it as a secondary cause under God, and ordered within paternal and maternal authority – we need a third virtue for expressing thoughts of delight (“thanks”) on that basis.  The ancients called it observantia, “observance.”

And then, fourth, there is the mere fact that someone or other did some good thing or other to you: acting as a benefactor, to whom you are a beneficiary, not of a random, but of a deliberate act of kindness.  Now the due response, when you look at the gift simply under the aspect of a benefactor and benefit, becomes simply “giving thanks” – purely so, with nothing added.  Thus (St. Thomas says) the fourth requisite virtue is “gratitude” – nested within the other three.

This Thanksgiving, then, give thanks that you can give a fourfold thanks.  At dinner, give thanks for the benefaction of your fellow man, grateful too for God’s polity of bestowed excellence, while you honor your mother and father, and bless the God of all creation who brings forth bread, and turkey and gravy, from the earth.


*Image: Prayer Before the Meal by Jan Steen, 1660 [The Leiden Collection, New York, NY]

You may also enjoy:

Christine Niles’ Becoming Catholic at Oxford

St. John Henry Newman’s A Thanksgiving

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.