Religion & Liberty Online

Thank God for Virtue

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To whom ought we to be thankful—and for what? Ask Abba Isaac.

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Each night, when it’s my turn to tuck in my littlest kids—Erin (5) and Callaghan (3) … and sometimes Aidan (6)—we say the same traditional prayers together: the “Our Father,” the “Axion Estin,” and the Creed. After the Creed, I ask them, “What are you thankful for tonight?” and “Who should we pray for tonight?”

They’re always thankful for their mom. They’re usually thankful for each other. Sometimes they’re thankful for me. When they’ve finished listing everyone and everything they’re thankful for, we pray, “Thank you, Jesus.”

Thankfulness can be powerful. Most of us have a lot to be thankful for, but often it seems those who have the most to be thankful for are the least prone to gratitude. When you pray each month to make ends meet, you’re much more thankful when they do.

But what is gratitude, really? Two questions seem fundamental: (1) To whom ought we to be thankful? And (2) for whatought we to be thankful?

Every year in the United States, we celebrate Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November. It has been a national holiday since President Grant signed the Holidays Act on June 28, 1870. For most of us, that means turkey, family, and football. For many, it also means drinking too much the night before and shopping too much the morning after, though online shopping has dissipated some of the traditional “Black Friday” frenzy in recent years.

All of that might be compatible with gratitude (yes, even the shopping), but the actual lived experience of Thanksgiving unfortunately doesn’t require it. A slew of vices have come to be associated with the holiday, including gluttony, discord, fanaticism, drunkenness, and greed, to name only a few.

This year, I hope all of us will let a more nuanced understanding of the nature of gratitude be our guide. St. John Cassian, in his Conferences, records a meeting with Abba Isaac on the nature of prayer, including “thanksgiving” as one of four distinct types of prayer, referencing 1 Timothy 2:1: “I exhort therefore first of all that supplications, prayers [or ‘vows’], intercessions, thanksgivings be made.”

Thus, as I try to teach my children, the old ascetic taught that thanksgiving is a kind of prayer. As such, it must be directed toward God first of all. Of course, we should always be thankful to anyone in our lives who’s done us good, but always in all things to God, “from whom all blessings flow,” to quote one early modern hymn.

For what, then, ought we to be thankful? Abba Isaac can help us there, too. He distinguishes between these four forms of prayer on the basis of their relation to the four “good” passions (drawing upon Stoic philosophy): contrition, caution (or, in Christian terms, “godly fear”), hope, and joy.

Today, the term “stoic” usually refers to a person who is seemingly unfeeling, like an action hero unphased by violence and explosions all around him. But the ancient Stoics, whose psychological analysis ancient Jews and Christians built upon, actually identified three passions as good—caution, hope, and joy—to which the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria and subsequent Christian theologians added contrition, or “godly sorrow,” to quote St. Paul (see 2 Cor. 7:10).

Why didn’t the Stoics think there could be a good form of grief? Because what made a passion good or bad, to them, was its relation to virtue and vice. Good passions help us avoid vice and act virtuously. But grief—the recognition of a present evil—must be bad because, even when one correctly judges vice to be evil, the presence of vice is itself a bad thing.

The Judeo-Christian tradition of mercy and forgiveness significantly expanded the Stoics’ categories. Grief could be good if the recognition of one’s sin spurred one to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11). It could also be good if in “weep[ing] with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), one helps turn a neighbor back from despair. Thus, again, virtue is the key.

Joy is the opposite: it isn’t merely a pleasurable feeling. Indeed, drunkenness, gluttony, and greed all revolve around mere pleasure, and much anger and strife come from the loss of it. For the Stoics and ancient Christians, though, pleasure referred to a mistaken judgment about what’s truly good. Rather, joy is the recognition of the presence of virtue, the only true good. And since goodness is a divine attribute, joy is the acknowledgement of being in the presence of God. As St. Severinus Boethius put it, “God is absolute happiness.”

Thanksgiving, then, is the moral response to true joy. We thank God not for fleeting things in themselves but only to the extent that they are used for virtue, strengthening our communion with one another and most of all with God.

Fittingly, as thanksgiving is the proper response to God’s joyful presence, the central sacrament of Christian worship has always been called the Eucharist, literally “thanksgiving.” Each liturgy has been teaching us Abba Isaac’s lesson for the past 2,000 years.

As a corollary, then, true gratitude cannot exist without virtue. Thus, if we find ourselves mired in the sins of this Thanksgiving season, we ought to take some time for supplications—prayers of repentance—so we might be reconciled to one another, and most of all to God, opening ourselves once again to that eternal joy that is the source of all that rightly deserves the name “thanksgiving.”

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.