It is one of the first things that parents teach their children — to give thanks. They encourage them to say Thank you and make sure they write illegible little thank you cards after Christmas or a birthday. We seem never to forget this childhood lesson. Our words and cards become perhaps more perfunctory, but they still salute the basic duty to give thanks. And even when we fail to give thanks (which is more often than not), we still acknowledge its importance.
In relation to God thanksgiving is even more fundamental, the first duty of the creature to the Creator. Saint Thomas Aquinas locates the prayer of thanksgiving within his treatise on justice. We have an obligation to give thanks. The Mass also calls this to mind. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God, says the priest. It is right and just, the people respond. Not just a good idea or a nice thing every now and then, but a matter of justice and of conduct worthy of God.
Perhaps because it is such a basic duty, we lose sight of not only the importance but the power of giving thanks. Repeated acts of thanksgiving give the mind the proper perspective on things. They shape the soul, perfecting it more and forming it in right relationship with God. We run the risk of reducing thanksgiving to just good etiquette and manners, to duty and justice. In reality, giving thanks to God — not just once a year, but repeatedly and often — perfects us as His children. It maintains the proper relationship with Him. He is God and we are not. By voicing our indebtedness we learn more and more just how poor in spirit we are, that without Him we can do nothing (cf. Jn 15:5).
Thanksgiving brings into perspective also the world’s problems and our failures. We know very well when things go wrong and, if we have any self-knowledge whatsoever, when we do wrong. But problems in the world and in us are not the most important or even the first things to see. God’s goodness comes before any of these. Thus St. Ignatius teaches that the first step in the examination of conscience is not to think of our sins but of His goodness — to give thanks. The most fundamental truth about our relationship with God is not our rebellion against Him but His goodness to us. To think of our sins without first considering His gifts puts our sinfulness ahead of His goodness. And no one who thinks that way will trust in His mercy. Before I’m sorry comes Thank you.
So also thanksgiving generates confidence for the future. In her prayer, ancient Israel always recounted first what the Lord had done in the past (creation, the Exodus, the Covenant, the Kingdom) and only then asked for His gifts (blessing, forgiveness, protection, deliverance). The more we reflect on what He has done for us in the past, the more confidence we will have for the future. This is the shape of the Mass, of the Eucharistic — i.e. Thanksgiving — Sacrifice: the greatest act of His goodness is made present as we make petition for the future.
Thus the prayer of thanksgiving should always precede that of petition. Jesus tells us, “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will” (Mk 11:24). We will not believe in that manner unless we first recall His goodness and deliberately thank Him for what He has already done. In addressing the European Parliament the other day, Pope Francis spoke about “protecting memory and hope.” This is the Judeo-Christian tradition of prayer: we remember with thanksgiving what He has already done so as to hope more confidently for what we need Him to do.
To illustrate this connection between thanksgiving and petition, St. Thomas points to a prayer from the Mass: “through giving thanks for benefits received we merit to receive yet greater benefits” (post-communion prayer from the common of a Confessor Bishop). By giving thanks we widen our hearts in trust of God and so therefore increase our capacity to receive what He desires to give us. Brilliantly abbreviating this whole point, Fr. Solanus Casey says, “Thank God ahead of time.”
Finally, thanksgiving should be specific. It is not a vague attitude, a nod of the head to God’s goodness as a theological truth. Our thanks should be for specific things — for life, health, rain, snow, a leaf, a kind word, a smile, and most of all for the Host placed upon the tongue. We should give thanks also for our crosses — for those difficulties that provide an opportunity for us to walk with Him, to accompany Him in the act of redemption.
It is one of the first things that parents teach their children… and that the Father teaches us. The more we thank Him, the more we know Him as a loving Father and ourselves as His children, confident in His goodness — past, present, and future.