Thanksgiving week is a fitting occasion for reflection not only on what our blessings are, but on what blessing is.

We might be tempted to define blessings as those good realities or presences in our lives for which we are grateful. But we often say of an ingrate that she doesn’t “appreciate or realize her blessings,” in which instance we are affirming that one can be blessed without being grateful for one’s blessings; recognition of one’s blessings (that is, gratitude) cannot be the essence of a blessing.

We might amend our understanding of blessing simply to “those good realities or presences in our lives.” This definition also is wanting. Many good realities in our lives are (the result of) our own actions; they are (states that issue forth from) what we do.  But properly speaking no action per se can be a blessing. Acts are actualizations or realizations of capacities of which we’re possessed. Those capacities are blessings, as are opportunities for growth and the presence of persons and realities in our lives that we do not act to bring about our relationship to.

When we say that “family is a blessing,” we mean that finding ourselves in a given family is a blessing, or that the fact of being “familied” is a blessing. When we say that friendship is a blessing, we’re not lauding our decision to make a particular friend, or our decision to enter into a friend group. Those decisions themselves are not blessings; but it is a blessing to be in a position to make those decisions, to be capacitated toward fulfillment in those friendships, to have encountered those whom we wish to befriend and who wish to befriend us, and to be possessed of the requisite good aspects of life that allow us to make those decisions in the first place (properly functioning vital organs, for example).

Even in the case of marriage, one isn’t blessed to marry one’s spouse. One is blessed to have met one’s (eventual) spouse, blessed with children (only parents who understand God’s supervention upon their marital act to be a formal cause of conception speak of children as blessings; commonly in an age in which we tout the “right to a child,” this way of speaking is unintelligible), and while we may say that one is blessed to be married to one’s spouse—and the state of being married is the fruit of the decision to marry—we don’t mean in so saying that our decision to marry itself is a blessing. When a man speaks of his wife’s love as a “blessing,” this implies that the wife’s act of loving is a blessing. It is—for her husband, and his for her. But her act of love isn’t her own blessing.

Similarly, when asked how she feels after a major victory, no athlete ever says, “My making the game-winning shot was a huge blessing.” No, gracious athletes in this situation rightly frame their gratitude for the moment in terms of what they have received, not what they have done: “I’ve been blessed throughout my career with the opportunity to work with amazing people who support me. It’s a blessing to play in the finals, and I can’t say enough about my teammates for setting me up well there for the last shot, for my coaches for believing in me even during my shooting slump earlier this series,” and so forth. Third-party observers might remark that this athlete has been blessed with physical gifts from birth, and blessed with an environment in which those gifts have been nurtured and cultivated.

From these reflections, a workable understanding of blessing emerges: Blessings are those opportunities, capacities, occasions, and providences that enable or encourage us to realize various dimension of our full-being as humans. In other words, while our actions always shape our character, and while an awareness of our blessings ought to shape our character, our actions are never our blessings, nor our blessings our actions. Blessings properly speaking are gifts; they evoke our gratitude precisely because we recognize them as originating beyond our own merit or scope of action, and as such we are grateful to those others—and perhaps to that Other—from whom and through whom the blessings of our lives are gifted us. The proud man does not recognize blessing, but only merit.

This is why gratitude is fundamentally a posture of humility—the truth about oneself—before the simple fact that our legitimate achievements (winning a championship, graduating high school, performing well in the school play) are the fruits of blessings in our lives, and that without those blessings, which functionally cardinally or radically in all of our courses of action, we would never experience such achievements. God can enjoy no blessings, though he bestows them; in a derivative sense man can both enjoy and bestow them; in an ultimate sense Satan neither bestows nor enjoys them, because in his pride and malice he neither recognizes nor wishes to impart them.

Thus, too, we see the inadequacy of one common way of speaking about blessings: “Be grateful for this or that; many people go without it.” Blessings are not comparative in this way. Even were all the world to be in good health, good health is a blessing precisely because good health is a human good. Even were every person to enjoy friendship and harmonious societal relations, or never have his body opposed to his will by means of suffering torture, or have his conscience rights upheld, all of these realities would be blessings, and they would be so even if many failed to recognize them as such.

Finally, one can now see that the person of faith, or at least the person of biblical faith, has access to knowledge that capacitates his gratitude for his blessings more so than the person of no faith. For the person of no faith, the presence of evil in the world—which always serves the foil, consciously or not, for our realization of and appreciation for blessings—is primal in some way; either as one of two fundamental principles of existence (as in dualistic paradigms), or as instrinsic to a monist principle of being that includes both good and evil in a germ of biology and chemistry that plays itself out over time in the form of evolution, intrinsic and necessary to which are violence, destruction, and decay.

But the person of biblical faith knows that the creating and structuring principle of all being and of all the cosmos is unqualifiedly good, admitting of no trace of evil; all of creation, too—visible and invisible—is “very good,” and is gently guided toward its consummation in and as a renewed order of existence. Thus we see that being itself is a good, and a quintessential blessing, because in a stark way being itself is given and not made, cannot be made, cannot be achieved. We also see that evil is not fundamental or primal, but derivative and contingent. As such, it is defeasible and ultimately transient; indeed it has already been defeated by the inbreaking of a new regime inaugurated in an act of pure love. This is perhaps the greatest blessing of all (one might even call it simply the Good News): Not only is being good, but our own self-destruction—our eradication of our being—is redeemed by yet another gift that is given and cannot be made or achieved.

Blessings are not of our making, though they are of our receiving, which is a kind of activity. But it is a crucially passive activity, maybe better termed a capacity or receptivity, a Chestertonian posture of gratitude toward that which I receive but cannot merit or achieve; that from which I can and do benefit even without realizing ("enjoying") it; that which I can appropriate, yes, but which loses the beauty of its essence as gift precisely when I do and which inexorably incarnates its abuse in the form of my own self-destruction. And ultimately, blessings, including the greatest blessings of existence and redemption, do not derive their worth from comparative absence—that is, from particularly or locality—but rather, in the case of those greatest blessings that comprise Good News, from the greatest universality imaginable.