THE etymological root of “gratitude” is “gratia” in Latin and translated as “grace” in English, which literally means “one’s good pleasure” or “favour”.
Thus, for a fuller understanding, gratitude or grace may be defined as a “favour bestowed freely on someone according to the good pleasure of the donor.”
The element of “freedom” or “choice” cannot simply be overlooked in this definition – thus giving rise to such words as “gratuitous, gratis, gracious, and gratefulness or gratitude”.
Gratitude, therefore, presupposes three important elements: 1) a gift or that something is given or bestowed; 2) reciprocation of gratefulness; and 3) freedom, good pleasure, or choice both in the giving and in the reciprocation.
I have no qualms acknowledging gratitude as a virtue – because it involves not just emotion or feeling but a choice. It does not depend as much on the circumstances as it does on our gracious imagination, our practices, and our habits.
But, is the virtue of gratitude yet prevalent in our secular and consumerist society?
Whence, seemingly nothing is free, save the relief benefits or “social amelioration program” coming from the government?
In our contemporary secular dispensation, the state has taken over many of the functions that were previously performed by charities – social welfare, health care, education, and relief from poverty.
Hence, charity has been replaced by justice as the ruling principle upon which social benefits are distributed. But while charity deals in gifts, justice deals in rights.
And when you receive what is yours by right, you don’t feel grateful.
When gifts are replaced by rights, so is gratitude replaced by claims. And claims breed resentments. Likely thus, ingratitude grows in proportion to the benefits received.
Curiously too, at the least, even the good old practice of saying the grace before meals has been wantonly dispensed with in our homes. Is the virtue of gratitude yet relevant?
According to the pre-Christian philosopher, Cicero, “gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues, but the parent of all virtues.”
However, from my theological background and understanding, love or “agape” (unconditional love) is the parent of all virtues, and gratitude is its offspring.
I like to think that gratitude is a necessary complement or consequence of love, and is thus inseparable from love.
If unconditional love or “agape” is freely given and expects nothing in return, so too is gratitude – it emanates from the free choice and humility of a grateful person.
Gratitude places us in correct relationship to the God who revealed himself to us. If pagans would barter with their gods, we Christians first know God as the creator, which makes all of creation a gift, a sign of God’s love.
We recognize God as omnipotent and all-good, so there is really nothing with which we can barter except our love, gracefully extended as a return for God’s love, which always precedes our own.
But, even minus the theological relevance of gratitude, contemporary science claims that gratitude can generate smooth, rhythmic heart coherence.
According to the HeartMath Institute (California), a non-profit research organization dedicated to neuro-cardiology, accessing coherent heart rhythms through the conscious generation of gratitude has numerous health benefits, including increased resilience to stress, a higher degree of foresight, improved memory, clearer thinking, more energy, and even greater hormonal balance.
Experts further adduce that practicing gratitude actually increases dopamine in our brain, the stuff that makes us feel good, and encourages our brain to seek more of the same.
Whilst, going back to the theological exigency of gratitude, the gospel story about the ten lepers fits our point.
In Luke 17:11-19, we read that Jesus was traveling between Samaria and Galilee, and as he entered a certain town, ten lepers implored him from an appropriate distance to have mercy on them.
Jesus responded by instructing them to show themselves to the priests. This was not a cure but a promise of the cure.
Lepers could be readmitted to society after they had been certified by priests that they are completely clean.
Obedient to Jesus’ instruction, the lepers made their way to the priests. En route, miraculous cures began to transpire.
One of the ten, a Samaritan, returned to Jesus to express his gratitude. After prostrating himself before the feet of Jesus and offering copious thanks, the Samaritan heard Jesus say to all who were present: “Were not the ten cured? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
The story makes it clear that gratitude pleases Jesus very much, while its absence brings him sorrow.
The fact that Jesus did not cure all ten lepers immediately gave them the opportunity to decide whether they should return to him directly and express their gratitude.
The delayed miracle allows the story to underscore the significance of gratitude as a choice and invites us to reflect on why Jesus places utmost importance on it.
God, no doubt, puts premium on our gratefulness. He made it a point to have his grace readily unmerited in order for us too to FREELY respond or reciprocate with gratitude his overwhelming love.
Thus, even in heaven, our Christian theology teaches, the principal prayer of the blessed is “thanksgiving”.
Oh, how I miss then with utter nostalgia our daily morning of “gratitude” in the seminary where I spent eleven years of my life.
Upon rising at 5:00 o’clock in the morning, an assigned seminarian in the dormitory would loudly intone in falsetto, “Benedicamus Domino (Let us Bless the Lord)!”And to which we would respond in unison, “Deo gratias (Thanks be to God)!”
Then we forthwith wash and prepare ourselves for the “Morning Praises” at the Chapel, followed by a 30-minute meditation, in strict silence, to contemplate on the divine profundity; and capped with our daily morning Mass.
The regular morning ritual is a beautiful, soothing daily gratitude experience – for which reason I have never failed to remember until now a prayer line: “The grandeur of the mountains, the vastness of the oceans, the breathtaking wonder of the interstellar space, all these proclaim the glory and majesty of God!”
In sum, therefore, gratitude – as borne out of love – stands out as a veritable wellspring of blessings and graces.
By gratefully reciprocating the goodness of God or of another person, we amplify the goodwill or blessing that we receive. “Amor est diffusivum sui” or love diffuses itself. This can be said too of gratitude. As we bestow our gratefulness, it does not only please the one we are grateful for, but our gesture of goodness or gratefulness benefits ourselves, or somehow comes back to us – thus effecting profound happiness on our part.
Wisely put, hence, the more we are grateful for, the more we will find things to be grateful for.
In closing, the following beautiful lines from Michael Josephson are truly spot on: “The world has enough beautiful mountains and meadows, spectacular skies and serene lakes. It has enough lush forests, flowered fields, and sandy beaches. It has plenty of stars and the promise of a new sunrise and sunset every day. What the world needs more is for people