Today is the great American holiday and feast of Thanksgiving. The day when we gather as family and friends, eat Turkey and all the trimmings until our hearts are content, watch football, and try to grow in a spirit of thanksgiving for all that we have. But the thanksgiving part, the virtue of gratitude, can be, ironically enough, one of the hardest parts of Thanksgiving. How then do we become truly grateful on Thanksgiving? The key lies in humility.
Humility, many spiritual masters remind us, is the foundation for virtue (including gratitude). Saint Catherine of Siena, an Italian, fourteenth century saint and mystic, shows us much regarding the “greatest of all virtues,” humility. For St. Catherine, true humility begins with acknowledging God, to see God in all aspects of life (especially during Thanksgiving), and to see God as mercy, as she says, a “mad lover of souls.” Furthermore, St. Catherine shows us the image of Jesus Christ as the bridge to God and true happiness – to cross the bridge of Christ we need three things: Charity, Discernment, and Humility. She sees charity as the tree, discernment as the branch and humility as the soil. She says, “The Tree of Charity is nurtured in humility and branches out in true discernment and living the whole of the Christian life.” To love our God and our neighbor, then, we are called to know ourselves and become humble.
So then, to be able to be grateful for what God has blessed us with, she gives two elements of humility. One is knowledge of one’s own sinfulness and knowledge of God within the self. This means not only knowledge of our sins and weaknesses, but also of our gifts, strengths and talents and to GIVE THANKS TO GOD FOR THEM. Humility is not false modesty but true self-knowledge. This true self-knowledge leads us to ultimately say this Thanksgiving (and all other days) the words of St. Catherine:
“I am the one who is not, and you are the one who IS.”
Humility then is nothing else but a person’s response to who they really are before God. As we grow in humility we see from St. Catherine that there are two types of humility. The first is imperfect humility – seeing the shortcomings of our life, meaning that if a person saw her/himself before God as s/he really is, it would lead to one’s being humble. It graces us with the ability to look past ourselves and focus solely on God (as one would in heaven).
The second type of humility is perfect humility – seeing the grace and mercy God has given, and knowing who God is, in as perfect a relation to God as humans can have, etc. We can only reach perfect humility by first reaching imperfect humility. So, when we the Church speak of virtue (including gratitude/giving thanks), we must see the reality of the growth from imperfection to perfection in every virtue, i.e. humility and gratitude. To know that there are different stages in our growth toward perfect virtue, etc., helps us grow in virtue just as we would grow in anything else. So it follows that only a person who has passed through the gate of humility can ascend to the heights of the Spirit (emphasis added).
As we grow in humility this Thanksgiving we grow in our virtue of gratitude. This means that to see someone who is grateful is to find someone who is humble. It reminds one of the person who, when asked, “How are you?” almost always seems to answer, “Better than I deserve”. We are better, in one sense, than we deserve. In humility we see all as gift and we are grateful. We begin to say “for all that has been, thank you Lord; for all that will be, THANK YOU LORD.” It is a heart that is open to surprise in life--a heart that trusts and sees life as a gift.
In a humble life we must know that we cannot take ourselves too seriously. So, this Thanksgiving we call to mind the importance of playfulness, lightheartedness, levity, as part of the recipe to grow in gratitude, and in turn humility. As the poet Friedrich Schiller says, “Man is only fully human when he plays.” So make sure to play this Thanksgiving. Spend time laughing, or playing football, or games. Whatever it is, have fun and be lighthearted and thus be led to true gratitude and to true humility.
May we be truly thankful this Thanksgiving through becoming humble--humble like our God who humbled himself to become one of us and show us the way home.