“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
― G.K. Chesterton
Thanksgiving: it’s an idea given concrete embodiment, a virtue that’s taken the form of turkey and gravy, football and 5K’s. It’s easy to get distracted from the actual “thanksgiving” in our Thanksgivings, by bloated stomachs and Black Friday shopping, touchdown passes and pumpkin pie.
But this national celebration of thanks is perhaps one of the most vital opportunities we possess to ponder the meaning of thankfulness: why it matters, and what it ought to look like in our everyday lives. It’s an opportunity for all of us—regardless of whether we go around the table sharing trite “what I’m thankful for” speeches—to consider what thanksgiving really is, and what we are really thankful for.
Many, when pondering things they’re thankful for, will consider circumstantial comforts: food on their tables, a roof over their heads, the comfort of friends and spouses. All of these things are good, and worth being thankful for.
But as our world aches with protests and wars, death and poverty—with decay and grief of a million sorts—it is important for us to express a different, a deeper sort of thankfulness. Because if all we have to be thankful for is our circumstances, then next Thanksgiving may not be so bright and cheery. If all we have to be thankful for are our circumstances, then “Thanksgiving” becomes a feast of forgetfulness, a blasé masquerade. Because sometimes our circumstances are terrible. There are riots in Ferguson, violent protests over injustices and death. There are Christians fleeing for their lives in the Middle East, looking for shelter, desperate for protection. There are people in slavery, forced to work in brick kilns or brothels, desperate for freedom. There are countless families experiencing divorce, estrangement, separation, or alienating bitterness. Many of us feel the aching pain of death and loss this holiday season—there is an empty seat at our Thanksgiving table.
The original Thanksgiving wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies, either. There were 50 Plimouth Plantation settlers at the first Thanksgiving—they were all who remained of the original 100 settlers. Their travels to the U.S. had resulted in death and hardship.
It is difficult—even painful—to be thankful, at times. And yet we still celebrate Thanksgiving. Why?
We must not come to the Thanksgiving table lightly, being foolishly indifferent or Pollyanna-ish about “what we’re thankful for,” leaving all our annoyances and griefs and pains outside in the cold. We must acknowledge their presence, the ache they represent in our lives. But we must also look past the decay and death, to the grace and mystery beneath. We must remember the gifts that thread through our existence, tinging everything with joy.
We must see life as a gift: as something precious, something we could never have earned or deserved. Each moment we spend in community is a tremendous grace.
We must see this world as a gift, in all its beauty and goodness, in all its tragedies. It is breathtaking, mysterious, beautiful.
We must see love as a gift—every warm heart, every loving marriage and caring friendship, every beloved family member or moment of camaraderie. We must not take kith and kin for granted.
Thanksgiving, thus, is about more than a list of circumstantial pleasures: it is also about incomprehensible mystery. It’s about the fact that, despite our cares and pains, we have been given more than we could have ever asked for. We have received more than we could have ever deserved. It is a mysterious grace. Life isn’t perfect—but it is good, all the same.
“Gratitude sanctifies the world. Gratitude makes the world holy. Nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thankfulness, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
Think about that. Think of everything you possess, everything that is yours in life. How can we live with these things in a way that doesn’t entangle us? In a way that isn’t sinful?
Receive them as gifts. When we handle the things of the world as gifts they become holy, consecrated and sanctified. Gratitude—thankfulness—marks the boundary between the sacred and the profane.”
— Richard Beck, “The World is Made Holy Through Thanks”
“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life… Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”
— Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
In The Brothers Karamazov, a priest tells the story of his brother, who died as a little boy. One day, his mother finds the little boy crying. When she asks him what is wrong, he responds,
“‘There was such a glory of God all around me; birds, trees, meadows, sky, only I lived in shame and dishonored it all and did not notice the beauty and glory.’
‘You take too many sins on yourself,’ mother used to say, weeping.
‘Mother, darling, it’s for joy, not for grief I am crying,’ he replied. ‘Though I can’t explain it to you, I like to humble myself before them, for I don’t know how to love them enough.’”