Just like I read encyclicals, I read the Summa theologiae like a mother, which lends itself to a more homely brand of scholarship. Moms? Oh, we get the systematic dialectic of St. Thomas because it’s kind of like how we deal with our children. We pose a question. The children say, “No, I think it’s this way.”
Another child says, “Well, I think it’s that way.”
Sometimes two to five more chime in, “But, but, but . . . ”
Mom hears them, respecting their opinions and their person. Then Mom lays it down, “On the contrary . . . ” And gives the short answer usually by quoting another authority.
“Your Daddy/Teacher/Doctor/Grandma said . . . ” Then she gives a gentle but firm delineation of what she accepts and rejects as she defends her short teaching, which is part of her bigger Mommy-Says synthesis.
Finally, she answers objections in proper order. “So there. So there. So there. Next question?”
And the children say, “But, but, but . . . ”
So when I read II-II, Q. 106, Article 4, where St. Aquinas addresses repaying favors at once, it jarred me a little because I had lots of “but’s.” Especially in the USA, moms often desire independence; it is seen in our culture as a strength. When a kind neighbor or family member offers to watch the children for a few hours so the mother can get some much-needed rest, or to come clean the house so mom can buy groceries in peace, or to cook a meal so she can heal from an illness, too often us mothers reject such help because it puts us in debt to the one who offered, which is just one more thing to keep up with. We’re supposed to be doing those things with (affected) ease, and to admit we need help is like admitting failure. Plus, (Objection 1) it just seems, as a matter of honor, that we are duty-bound to restore what we owe; (Objection 2) that we seem more earnest if we eagerly repay without delay; and (Objection 3) that we need to repay a matching or exceeding gift to fully show our gratitude.
St. Thomas, however, cites Seneca the Younger, the Roman Stoic philosopher from the time of Christ. “He [ahem She] that hastens to repay, is animated with a sense, not of gratitude but of indebtedness.” When we reject help, what we really say is, “I don’t want to owe you anything.” And that is pretty much like saying you don’t want someone’s friendship.
True gratitude can be repaid at once—from the heart if we receive gifts graciously, with affection. That is, just say thank you, mean it (and maybe hug generously). As for the physical gift or work, it does not need to be repaid at once. It needs to be repaid when it is convenient for the benefactor, and (the kicker) we need to understand our debts are never fully repaid. That’s the nature of friendship. We enter a continual giving and receiving because we open ourselves to communion. Every act between us upsets the balance, and it’s supposed to be like that. When we accept help from people, we should want to help them in return, not just to rid ourselves of debt but because we love the other person and commit to be there when we are needed. As with any virtue, it’s about faith, hope, and love. If, for instance, your mother wants to help you, let her and thank her. And then be there for her when she needs you too. On it goes . . .
So, in thanksgiving, let your friends and family gift you with kindness when they offer and repay them instantly with heart-felt appreciation. In due time, give back in the same spirit. We are made for it, in the Trinitarian image of God, and we will never fully repay Him for all He has given us. By striving to grow in love in our human friendships, we are offering thanks to God for the gift of them.
*According to Beth, her mom is the best mom ever and helps her allll the time.