Ingratitude: The Forgotten Sin

ALICE VON HILDEBRAND

 

The Wanderer

July 26, 2007

I recall vividly that in my early teens I read the memoirs of a priest who, aged 70, bitterly lamented his ingratitude toward his mother. His family was poor and his very loving mother had saved some money to get him a birthday gift. It was wrapped in bright paper, and he opened it eagerly only to discover that it was not the toy he wanted. He showed his displeasure and disappointment by going into some sort of tantrum. Sorrow was written on his mother's face: Sorrow because ingratitude is ugly, and we all want those we love to be beautiful, and also because she had unwittingly disappointed her son. To him, the gift mattered; the love of the giver was overlooked. She had made sacrifices to give him joy, and instead of saying "thank you," he had made her feel his anger.

Late in his life, he could not forget this episode, and daily asked God and his mother to forgive him. He had confessed his sin; he had been absolved, but following the advice of one of the great spiritual directors of all times, St. Benedict, he daily recalled his ingratitude and shed tears of repentance.

For the rest of his life, he hated his ingratitude with a holy hatred. To recall daily what we are capable of doing without God's grace teaches one humility. Some 60 years later, the priest mentioned this episode in his book to let his readers know that, like Shakespeare, he viewed ingratitude as worse than a howling winter wind: "blow, blow, thou winter wind; thou art not so unkind as man's ingratitude" (As You Like It). How often do people confess their ingratitude?

Today it is a forgotten sin.

The word "thank you" should always sing in the hearts of Christians, and find expression in their words. Alas, in our society it is a music which is rarely heard. Spoiled by money and comfort, rare are those of us who have these honeyed words on their lips. Everything is our due.

The ungrateful little boy had failed to perceive that the response of gratitude is primarily directed toward the kindness of the giver who clearly intended to give joy by his gift. The nature of the gift should be of secondary importance. Was it not St. Augustine who reminded us, in speaking of our relationship with God, that we should love the Giver more than His innumerable gifts?

The worst scenario is when the gift is used as a ploy to catch an innocent victim into one's nets. Faust captured Marguerite by giving her jewels. She assumed, wrongly, that he loved her, and that his love found expression in his gift. It is but too obvious that his intention matched the one of a bird catcher. Literature is rich in such ignoble cases. A gift (apart from purely conventional donations) which is not an expression of loving kindness is a tacit lie.

Concrete examples will shed light on this. It is a well known, but sad fact, that a husband who sincerely cares about his wife, nevertheless can have an affair because—to quote Plato—he cannot "achieve victory over pleasure." He talks himself into believing that it is just a game, a bit of fun which cannot last, and therefore does not endanger his marriage. He tries to hide his deplorable weakness from her, and naively convinces himself that he has succeeded. He is mistaken; being feminine and very intuitive, the wife "feels" the sad truth and is deeply grieved. If she is a devout Christian, her sorrow responds primarily to the offense of God and the harm that her husband is doing to his beloved soul. Her personal sorrow, deep as it is, is her secondary motivation. If she asks for advice from a wise spiritual director, she will often be told to pray and offer her suffering for his sake.

The husband, on the other hand, does not fully succeed in convincing himself that the whole affair is not serious, and plagued by a repressed bad conscience, he decides to give his wife a beautiful pearl necklace. As she knows the truth, this gift will give her no joy: for the obvious reason that she knows that it is a coverup. She will never wear it.

 

Totally different is the situation of a friend of mine, a refugee, who lived in dire poverty with his parents and two sisters. He was fighting against despair, but God, in His goodness, placed a lovely, deeply Catholic girl on his path who won his heart. She responded. Every lover wants to shower gifts on the beloved: Nothing is too beautiful for her. He had nothing but refused to come to her empty handed. Very early in the morning before going to work, he would climb a nearby mountain looking for an edelweiss. The gift was modest indeed, but rich in meaning and brought tears to her eyes, for this one flower was a perfect expression of his love: It was rich in tenderness and devotion. A diamond necklace given with little or no love is worthless. One flower—this creature of a day—brought warmth and joy to her heart. She knew that what truly matters is the intention of the giver: not the financial value of the gift.

 

Admirable as Plato’s ethics is (a remarkable proof that truth loving pagans could read the message of the natural law), it does not mention gratitude. Neither humility nor charity (these supernatural virtues) has its place in his ethical works for the plain reason that these virtues cannot blossom on a ground deprived of the dew of the supernatural.

Gratitude is a Christian virtue par excellence, because it responds to the goodness of a God who is not only Creator and Ruler, not only all-powerful, but loves His creatures.  Christianity reminds us constantly that "all excellent gifts come from God" (St. James). Gratitude should therefore be a fundamental Christian attitude. Everything we do should express this gratitude. In God, we encounter not only someone who is good, but Goodness itself, and this Goodness diffuses itself constantly in a superabundance of gifts, the greatest being His love for us expressed in the Incarnation. Whereas in human relationships, one distinguishes between the giver and the gift, in God both are one: He is the Gift, and this is why the words "thank you" should always be on the lips of Christians.

 

Shortly before his death, knowing that he was running out of time, my husband wrote a small book entitled Gratitude. While sharing it with me, he said: "Don't forget: It is the key to happiness. Only those who are grateful can be happy." This might explain why there are so many unhappy men on this earth. My husband was in intensive care for a heart condition. All of a sudden, he lost consciousness. Revived by a doctor, he came back to himself. But he was so weak he could only whisper. I had immediately called a priest. When my husband saw him, he whispered to me: "Ask Father to pray a Te Deum. I want to thank God for all the graces He has given me in my life."

He was a grateful man.

Let us pray that the water of divine grace will water our hearts, melt them, and render them grateful, making them like unto the heart of Christ, crucified by our sins. “Fac cor nostrum secundum cor tuum” (“Make our hearts like Your heart”).