Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

Gratitude is the most personal, powerful and perfect prayer; in fact, the word “prayer” in this sentence is almost superfluous. For there is no way that gratitude cannot be a prayer — if taken to its logical goal: God. In that sense, whenever I give thanks, I give praise to God.

God is the origin of all that is good. What God does “all day long” is bless. All blessings are graces that God sends to us in every way possible — within the natural structures that freedom informs and, therefore, contingent to some extent on the will of the receiver. To say it simply, all we need to do is let God and let go to receive the full effects of these “grace bombs” that have ways of overpowering our fear, weakness and fragility without destroying an iota of our free will or identity.

When we are moved to say “thank you,” it is like the breath of God returning praise for a favor to its rightful source. Every person likes to be thanked, and a personal God is no exception. That is why every “thank you” is always so personal. It strengthens a bond between the giver and to one who has received, between the one who blesses and the blessed.

On a purely human level, though everyone appreciates the appropriate “thank you,” the one thanked often experiences a touch of uneasiness, an instinctive sense of being unworthy of the “thank you.” This is only natural. Every giver knows that he or she is not the sole source of the receiver’s blessing for the ability to give is itself a blessing. All of us are receivers of God’s grace. 

God, of course, is the rightful object of all thanksgiving. Giving thanks to God is only just. Therefore, it is perfectly sensible to thank God whenever we thank one another. Whenever we receive anything that we know we neither created nor earned — no matter how much we wanted or even felt entitled to — it is only right and just that we give God thanks and praise, as we say before every Preface to the Holy Eucharist. Thanking the specific person or persons who helped deliver that grace is also a way of praising God personally, whose Holy Spirit hovers in the hearts of all who are moved by God’s life-giving love.

Gratitude is also very powerful. It is one of the best motivators in the world. Show appreciation to someone for anything he or she is or has done, and you will only receive more where that came from. Consulting our own experience, we know how often being thanked and honored only stimulates us to do more. Somehow it evokes a desire to want to do even better. 

Not that we do it for that reason, but those who depend upon the loyal services of employees and volunteers know that expressing gratitude sincerely — and, so importantly, in a personal way — not only affirms the value of their work, but motivates them to even greater generosity and achievement. 

I can’t help but think that when we thank God, we become even more assured of an abundance of additional graces that our thanksgiving draws forth from God. What am I saying? That God can be moved to bless us more when we say “thank you?” Darn straight. Thanksgiving moves God. That is pretty powerful.

One reason why thanking other human beings is so pleasing to God is that it acknowledges and gives praise to what God is doing in the world. To put it bluntly, it is a way to evangelize! “Give thanks to the LORD, invoke his name; make known among the peoples his deeds.” (1 Chr 16:8) Is it any wonder that the Eucharist itself means “to give thanks?” The central and most defining expression of the identity of God’s people is our celebration of the gift of God’s own Son to us, poured out like a libation, consumed and regenerated in our lives lived in active thanksgiving, from grace to grace. What a dance this becomes and God loves it!

Finally, thanksgiving is the perfect prayer, if for no other reason than that it always leads us outside ourselves. The so-called “gimme” prayer is often the subject of much derision among well-meaning preachers and retreat animators seeking to lead their listeners beyond themselves. Supplication is perfectly fine prayer. Going to God for anything good is never to be discouraged and gives great praise to God for being the source of all blessings. 

What makes the prayer of gratitude even more perfect, however, is that it is in itself a prayer. It is totally unconditional and, therefore, the purest form of prayer. In fact, a prayer of thanksgiving is an offer of one’s self. Whenever I give thanks, sincerely and without ulterior motive, I am making myself vulnerable to the person I thank. By “vulnerable” I mean opening myself to a relationship with the other with all of its risks and uncertainties. 

One never knows what he or she is getting into when an offer leading to friendship is made or received, but the expression of thanksgiving, as a self-offering, is also an offer toward another response from the person thanked. It is never a payment or a form of compensation. It only opens, not closes, doors.

Unlike any purely human relationship, when one gives thanks to God, there is no question about the trustworthiness or motivation of the giver. Yes, it is true, being befriended by God is an adventure and, like all journeys, must unfold with challenges, surprises and discoveries, for it leads us out of our comfort zones into ever new and expanding horizons. But isn’t that the nature of grace, God’s creation (created grace), and the very essence of who God is (uncreated grace) to lead us into the life that lasts and knows no bounds: love forever! Is anything more perfect?

This column was first printed in The Evangelist on Jan. 19, 2019.