I often call Thanksgiving “amateur hour.” I’m often surprised that the angriest of atheists who often seem so preoccupied with secularizing Christmas, keeping prayer out of schools and accusing often thoughtful religious people of being hopelessly saccharine, often let Thanksgiving, slip past their crosshairs.
It would well do the irreligious to set their sights on a day when all are called to prayer. Bonhoffer once said, “If the only prayer we ever uttered was ‘thank you,’ it would be enough.” While the Thanksgiving of my youth often recalled pilgrims and Native Americans, we forget that the legend of those days was that the indigenous taught the new inhabitants to be grateful, even for a likely simple meal, that those gathered had likely also worked hard to procure. In today’s modern America, many are less likely to feel gratitude during a meal, but rather be more likely to complain that the turkey is too dry or the potatoes too lumpy. At lunch the other day, I complained that the Boston Creme Pie I grabbed from the cafeteria at work was simply, “inferior.”
Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, understood this mentality. Easily, did he too, gravitate towards the negative. With the seminal moment of his conversion, that is, when I cannonball shattered his leg, ending his career in Knighthood, Ignatius focused nearly solely on the negative. He would no longer be the brave knight of battles who could spin tales of his bravery in order to gain the affections of beautiful women. He had the doctors re-break his leg a few times in the hopes that he would not walk with a limp. Frankly, you would think that he would simply be glad to be alive, but that leg! He was reported to have bemoaned, “Who could love a gimpy-legged man?”
David Fleming, S.J., a translator of Ignatius’ spiritual exercises conveys Ignatius’ converted gratitude perfectly,
“How can I respond to a God so good to me and surrounding me with the goodness of holy men and women and all the wonderful gifts of creation? All I can do is give thanks, wondering at God’s forgiving love, which continues to give me life at this moment.”
It is here, in gratitude, that Ignatius centers everything. Twice a day, he implores the Jesuits to look at their last 12 hours and to search immediately for gratitude. In doing so, we push away the desolate and draining moments of our day, so that they might not become the center of our lives, but rather, we might find grace lurking in our minds, but clearly present in front of our faces, prodding us to consider gratitude as central. In this is much to ponder. Moreover, in this is also practical theology, that grounds us in finding God in the more mundane rhythms of our already distracted and over-programmed lives. Might I find gratitude in the co-worker who needs 10 more minutes of my patience because I see myself as that gifted listener and in them the trustful colleague? Or is this person just a pain in the neck? Might I turn to my wife more frequently when she tries to comfort me, reveling in this offered love, instead of thinking that I don’t need support? Are past relationships just hurtful broken-heartedness, or were they opportunities to understand ourselves better, to move into new relationships with more knowledge of our own compatibility with others and more easily move into the next phase of life?
We can all-too-easily place the “issues” we have in life at the center. This leads to thanklessness, even for the more pragmatic amongst us who want to quickly problem-solve matters and move on. Gratitude implies that we need to first acknowledge any part of our lives that indeed echoes this.
Thanksgiving is simply our opportunity to focus intentionally on what brings us gratitude and to center ourselves on God’s grace, the free gift of the God-self to us around a table of thanksgiving known to Christians as Eucharist–a word that primarily means thanksgiving.
Truly it is easy to forget our gratitude, especially on lousy days when the world seems to be conspiring against us and when we indeed don’t feel like our best selves. These moments need not be the center of our lives, rather, the human spirit longs for gratitude, that lifts us out of the doldrums of despair and instead brings us into space that helps us see that God’s grace is all around.