November is a month particularly set aside for thanksgiving. Not only is there the Holiday of Thanksgiving itself, but the month begins with a call to remember those who have gone before us and are now among Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering, and we cannot but remember them with gratitude. And there is yet another holiday where we give thanks, Veterans’ Day. I was in the Marine Corps and fought in Afghanistan, had friends die and have things inside my head I wish I hadn’t seen, and yet not until recently did I learn to graciously respond to the ‘thank you’ I receive ever year with a simple ‘you’re welcome’. I couldn’t see a real connection between what I had done and the lives of those who were shaking my hand. Had I given them something? I had never thought deeply about what it meant to give a gift or how I had participated in giving the gift of freedom as a combat veteran.
How did I come to understand? A few weeks ago I was reading Saint Thomas, and was, as usual, confused. In his discussion of whether the name ‘Gift’ is a personal name of the Holy Spirit he defines gift not as something given but as something which has the aptitude to be given. This made me pause, for it didn’t seem true. For instance, isn’t it true that I have many things I could give away but which I intend to keep? I wouldn’t call my possessions gifts, and if I were to walk into my friend’s house and begin to refer to his paintings and books as gifts he would consider me an odd and grasping sort of fellow. What was Saint Thomas driving at?
Well, Saint Thomas is being very careful, as always. All the personal names of God cannot be said to imply as their first meaning a relation to man since it was not necessary for God to create man, and so he must show the name ‘Gift’ can be said without needing to be received by us. He finds a solution and says that a gift was not something given, but something that has an aptitude to be given. When I first read this, though, I thought it was clever but only something that would belong to the Holy Spirit, it was ‘gift’ used in a Trinitarian, unique sense, and stripped of all imperfection only so it could be said of God. I was wrong.
I saw this in how we speak of gifts. We say that we have a gift for someone before we give it to them, and we see this clearly when we give a gift and it isn’t accepted: in such cases there is a gift but no one receives it. We also say ‘this is a gift for Dad’ even before we give it, but when we have received it, we say ‘this was a gift from my son’. Insofar as it is a gift, it never ceases to belong to the giver in some way. If we treat it as though it were entirely ours to dispose of as we wish, without bearing the giver in mind, then we are justly accused of ingratitude. In these ways I saw that Saint Thomas was right.
I also see now that there are different kinds of gifts. Some are nearly entirely possessed by us once received, like birthday cash which, though merely a means in our possession, ought to be used for something beyond the paying of bills. Others, preeminently the Gift of the Holy Spirit, are not ours once we receive them because they are greater in themselves than we are, and we cannot have dominion over them. This sort of gift belongs uniquely to the giver even after we have received them. Freedom is a gift of this sort.
The gift of freedom is a gift which has been given to all men. Man’s reason and free will are the greatest natural gifts he has received and must be formed and used in such a way as to give thanks to God, and it is a state’s responsibility to so constitute itself to not hinder man’s return to God. That is why freedom of religion is emphasized in our founding documents. Further, in our country we have a civic freedom which permits us to participate in politics by voting, and perhaps being elected to serve. These freedoms are not ours to use as we wish, but belong primarily to the giver, to God first and then to our country, and so we have a duty to exercise our freedoms.
Since freedom is not ours but from God, it is a mistake to say that we may use our freedom however we wish. However we live, we must bear in mind that we act freely because we have something greater than ourselves in hand, and so we are not free to define ourselves as we wish and do what we want. It is when we fall into ingratitude and see our freedom as belonging to us and us alone that we start speaking of our right to abortion, gender choice, and the myriad of other ‘personal choices’ we see around us today. We are blessed to live in a country which permits us to flourish in our freedom, but our truest freedom is not from our county, but from our God.
The United States is a wonderful country in which we are not only free to exercise our highest freedom, but in which we are given a civic freedom unknown elsewhere. These freedoms are not private goods but common, and that is the reason those of us who have served in our military can and should accept the thanks of our grateful fellow-citizens when Veterans Day comes. Because common goods are not lost by the giver when he gives it, it is understandable that a marine like I might not feel as though he should be thanked, but his participation in and contribution to the good of the country is a sure and direct aide in the giving of God’s gift of freedom to each and every citizen. So, take the opportunity this month to thank those around you who have helped you realize in your life the gifts God has given you, and if you yourself are thanked, do not hem and haw and say it was no big deal, but graciously say ‘you’re welcome’ and turn to God yourself and thank Him for making you an instrument of His will and a channel of His Love.