To be truly grateful means that one holds oneself in the grace of owing. It means alert and noble attention to the good intended by the giver.
Giving thanks is such a beautifully natural gesture that it seems almost perverse to admire someone for not making it. But Dr. Samuel Johnson earns such admiration in a famous letter to Lord Chesterfield written when his great Dictionary of the English Language was nearing completion. Chesterfield had written two favorable notices about Johnson’s great work, and Johnson might have been thought to owe him gratitude. But Johnson had a history with this supposed patron. When he first started his mammoth project, he went to Lord Chesterfield to ask for his support—that is, to help him pay his ordinary living expenses so that he could devote himself to this work. At that time, he was rudely rejected, and in his letter, Johnson reminds Chesterfield of what this neglect meant.
“Seven years, my Lord, have now passed, since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been patiently pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favor. Such treatment I did not expect, for I had never had a Patron before.” But should he not be grateful now that Lord Chesterfield has praised his work? Not at all. “The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it.”
Dr. Johnson cannot be said to be an ungrateful man, but he has a high and instructive sense of justice: “I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Public should consider me as allowing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.” Perhaps, having seen that Johnson succeeded on his own, Chesterfield would now support him and garner some of the credit for the work. Again, Johnson will not have it: “Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favor of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less.”
The point is not meanness or revenge, but moral clarity. There is no reason to “confess obligations where no benefit has been received.” In fact, to thank those who have not helped, especially if they occupy a higher station than oneself, is a particularly servile form of flattery. Real thanks go to those who have bestowed real benefits.
In the spirit of moral clarity, then, I extend the heartfelt thanks and prayers of the entire Wyoming Catholic College community to the generous donors who have believed in our epic endeavor from the outset, who have supported us in the hardest of times, and who continue to give us assistance and genial encouragement. Unlike Dr. Johnson, we could never have done it by ourselves, and we readily confess our warmest gratitude.
Receiving a gift incurs a graceful obligation. When I was doing a podcast on Thanksgiving for Dr. Jim Tonkowich last week, I remembered that in Milton’s Paradise Lost the most beautiful passage on gratitude comes from the most unlikely source. Milton’s Satan has a moment of near repentance when he first arrives in Eden, the new paradise that God has created since the fall of the rebel Angels. Fresh from escaping Hell, Satan reflects on what he lost in Heaven and how he fell through “pride and worse ambition” in his war against God.
Ah wherefore! He deserved no such return
From me, whom He created what I was
In that bright eminence and with His good
Upbraided none. Nor was his service hard:
What could be less than to afford Him praise,
The easiest recompense, and pay him thanks?
How due! Yet all His good proved ill in me
And wrought but malice.
To keep his high and honored place in Heaven, all Satan had to do was to praise God justly and thank him—and yet this obligation of gratitude galled him most. He was so high that it seemed to him that he could take one step higher and free himself from “the debt immense of endless gratitude / So burdensome — still paying! still to owe!” With so much surpassing excellence bestowed upon him, he resented the Bestower, as if the gift were not a gift at all but a massive and onerous debt thrust upon him, an infinite mortgage, never to be paid off, on the very being he wanted to feel as most his own. And yet, in this brief Edenic moment of self-recognition, he knows that when he rebelled, he “understood not that a grateful mind / By owing owes not but still pays, at once / Indebted and discharged.”
To be truly grateful means that one holds oneself in the grace of owing. It means alert and noble attention to the good intended by the giver. We owe, in this way and in this spirit, all of you who have been donors to Wyoming Catholic College. We thank those early students who took a chance on us, the parents who have continued to trust us, the volunteers who share their talents and time to make our community more beautiful, and the faculty and staff who participate in giving thanks as they give themselves without stint. With you, we owe praise and thanksgiving for our lives and all that we have to Our Lord, in whose infinite good we find our meaning and direction.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is “The Feast in the House of Simon” by Frans Francken the Younger (1581-1642), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.