I was surprised recently to find Cicero quoted as saying, in my paraphrase, that gratitude is not only the greatest virtue but the parent of the other virtues. What did this "pagan" (pre-Christian Roman) know that many of us today have forgotten?
Some good answers have come from David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and author, most recently of A Deep Bow: Gratitude as the Basis of a Common Religious Heritage. He has made gratefulness the heart of his spirituality and prayer life.
His key point is important for people turned off by religion who turn to various forms of spirituality in their search for meaning: the link between religion and spirituality is gratitude.
I paraphrase Brother David: We cannot possibly be grateful to ourselves; gratitude necessarily implies another person. We cannot be grateful to things or to impersonal powers like nature. And as soon as we omit the personal element, gratitude ceases. why? "Because gratitude implies that the gift I receive is freely bestowed, and someone who is capable of doing me a favor is by definition a person."
There are theological implications here about God that I won't explore. I am thinking instead of the freely given gift and the need for thankful recognition. In other words, a positive response in an often uncaring world.
At a recent funeral I attended, the speaker said: amid the tragic loss and grief, we must be grateful for the life that has now ended, for all the good he did. That, for me, is an essential element in any memorial service or funeral: a sense of gratitude to God for the uniqueness of each individual life.
So perhaps what motivated Cicero's assertion 2,000 years ago was the optimism implied in gratefulness--and the self-giving, because giving thanks is not always easy or automatic. It requires us to reach beyond our own concerns to recognize the reality of the good in others, even amid all the pain and horror that surrounds us.