Once there was a wealthy woman who employed two servants in her home: a maid, and a cook. Every year at Christmas time the woman gave her servants an expensive gift. One year, however, the servants were surprised when their gift turned out to be a pair of leather gloves. The maid was disappointed, as she had been expecting a nice Christmas bonus as in past years. As she thought about it, she became furious—though she didn’t say anything to her employer. As soon the woman left the room, however, the maid in her anger threw the gloves into the fireplace, where the flames began consuming them. The cook was also greatly disappointed, but being a bit older and wiser, she decided to keep the gloves. She even tried them on, but wasn’t able to get her fingers in them, as some pieces of paper were wedged inside. As the maid watched, the cook looked inside her gloves, and discovered that a $50 bill was rolled up in each finger of both gloves—a total of $500. Seeing this, the maid rushed to pull her gloves out of the burning fire in the fireplace, but it was too late; her Christmas gift was already consumed by the flames (Spirago, Anecdotes & Examples for the Catechism, p. 357).
This story is a sad but important reminder of why we need to live in a grateful spirit. If we’re angry over what we’ve been given, we may easily overlook the blessings available to us and end up doing foolish things we’ll regret. Being thankful to God allows Him to give us even greater blessings, whereas ingratitude risks the loss of everything.
God always has a plan, and while we may not understand it or even like it, it is always truly the best thing for us. A grateful spirit allows His plan to unfold with a minimum of sacrifice and delay. Thanking God for His gifts is a way of identifying ourselves with Him—and as St. Paul (2 Tim 2:8-13) reminds us, being faithful and persevering in this way will one day allow us to share in His Kingdom, regardless of our earthly status. This was something Naaman the Syrian (2 Kgs 5:14-17) learned; after he was healed of his leprosy, he thanked the prophet Elisha, and promised from then on to worship only the Lord. The Gospel of Luke (17:11-19) speaks of another foreigner—a Samaritan—who, unlike his Jewish counterparts, took the time to thank Jesus for being healed of leprosy. We don’t know what became of him—but I’d bet we’ll find him in Heaven if and when we ourselves arrive there one day. Being grateful for God’s gifts is a powerful way of allowing His saving grace to continue working in our lives.
Not everyone always understands or acts upon this truth, however—as we see in another biblical story involving leprosy. One of the greatest Old Testament heroes was Moses, who, along with his brother Aaron and sister Miriam, led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea, and on their years-long journey to the Promised Land. Moses had married a foreign woman, and chapter 12 of the Book of Numbers describes how Aaron and Miriam thereupon became jealous. Instead of being grateful for their brother’s leadership, his courage, and his fidelity to God’s commands, they complained against him, in effect saying, “We’re just as good as he is.” The Lord was very angry at their pride and ingratitude, and in punishment, Miriam was turned into a leper. Moses interceded on behalf of his sister, and God relented—but Miriam still had to remain a leper for one week, living outside the camp, before her skin was restored.
Fortunately, Miriam’s story had a happy ending—but it reminds us that ingratitude can have severe consequences. In Shakespeare’s play King Lear, the king laments the fact that two of his three daughters had turned against him in his time of need, and exclaims, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child! Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend!” (Of course, the situation was partially Lear’s own fault, for his daughters learned from his own example of self-centeredness.) Ingratitude hurts other people, but it also hurts ourselves. The famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton noted that an ungrateful spirit keeps us from tasting the joy of finding God in His creation, keeps us from truly knowing Him, and even keeps us from truly knowing ourselves. In other words, refusing to give thanks for the Lord’s blessings is actually a way of wasting our lives—much as the ungrateful maid threw away her valuable Christmas gift out of foolish anger and pride.
The only limit on God’s ability to bless us is our degree of willingness to receive His gifts. If we’re trying to live in a grateful spirit, we’ll take time every now and then to reflect on all we have, and to offer the Lord our simple and sincere prayer of thanksgiving. Living in an attitude of thankfulness means always trusting in the Lord, for if we reflect on the ways He has already blessed us, we’re reassured that we will always experience His loving care and protection, even in the difficulties and disappointments of life. Having a grateful spirit means recognizing that God’s gifts often come through the people around us, and that in fact, these people themselves can be a gift—and so we’ll make a point of expressing our thanks to them. Whenever we’re sad over the things we don’t have, we’ll remind ourselves of the things we do have—and if we remember the many hundreds of millions of people in the world who are much worse off than we are, we’ll find it easier to be thankful. Moreover, we’ll try to express our thanks to God by using our opportunities to help those who are suffering or in need—for this is the form of thanksgiving our Heavenly Father wants more than any other.
Jesus said to the Samaritan leper, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.” True faith doesn’t limit itself to calling upon God only in times of need, the way so many people do; it also expresses itself in an even greater way by thanking Him for all the blessings we’ve already received. Gratitude is a vitally important and irreplaceable sign that our faith in God is living and real—and if we, like the Samaritan, open our hearts to this sort of saving faith, we will be able to rejoice and give thanks forever.