Thanksgiving was all wrong this year.
All wrong. Neither God nor the rest of the world bothered to consult me about how it ought to happen and it went on as it was going to despite my protestations to the contrary.
For the first year ever, no family around the table, and only a few, very precious, friends. And to top it all off, changes in my community that, ultimately, are good and necessary, but feel very much like loss as one of my favorite priests recedes to the background of the parish, an administrator is named and yet another much loved priest will—as is done in these things—simply vanish quietly from the scene in order to let the new man take up his share of the burden of serving God’s fractious people without the added complication of the “old guy” still around.
A Thanksgiving of change, of God’s creation and the people in it becoming what they are, but always, always it feels like loss. I suppose it felt like loss to Creation when then last eohippus died, too, but it was necessary if we were eventually to have Man’o’War. This business of being created unfinished is not the most comfortable business in the world. Must make a note to talk to God about that….he clearly needs my assistance in this matter.
There’s humility, I think, in recognizing that one’s pain sometimes comes from the pride that wishes things to be, always and everywhere, in conformity with one’s own desires rather than accepting what simply is. There’s also a certain pride, I think, in trying desperately to make it all fit some plan of logic that we generate ourselves: God chose to do this to teach me that….perhaps I am not, after all, the focus of the universe or even of this particular constellation of events. Perhaps I am just a bystander sometimes.
There is pain that always comes with change and growth, built into creation. There are plenty of scriptures that point us to this uncomfortable reality but the words that remind me best of this comes from The Fantasticks.
There is a curious paradox that no one can explain.
Who understands the secret of the reaping of the grain?
Or why Spring is born out of Winter’s laboring pain?
Or why we must all die a bit before we grow again?
I do not know the answer, I merely know it’s true.
I hurt them for that reason, and myself a little bit too…
So there I sat, in the last pew, on Thanksgiving, feeling anything but thankful. And if there is one thing I have learned in these past few years, it’s that emotions, like the wind and the Spirit, come unbidden and largely un-commanded, tied up to things so deep in me that I can’t begin to unravel them to understand. So to hear that common –and very true—admonition that we have so much to be thankful for this should be a day of joy rang in my heart like the sound of a broken bell, recognizable, all right but off-key; and nothing I could do about it, uncertain whether it might even be one day repaired and restored to its former clarity.
As I sat in the church, only half-listening to the homily, words floated to mind: Give thanks in all things. And Were not ten made clean? And where are the nine? There is no one found to return and give glory to God, but this stranger. And he said to him: Arise, go thy way; for thy faith hath made thee whole.
I think it’s a mistake to equate giving thanks with feeling really good about what’s happening, to conflate gratitude with pleasant, uplifting emotions. Thanksgiving—gratitude—I think may be more akin to a way of acting than a way of feeling. At least, that’s all I can muster this year.
I am comforted that God does not ask the impossible; He does not ask us to give thanks for all things, just in them—the for, if it comes at all, comes later. He bids us not to understand what is happening, but to know He is in the midst of it all.
I am reminded of Kaddish, the prayer Jewish mourners say at the death of a loved one, reminiscent of, perhaps even precursor of, our own Te Deum. It’s not a prayer of “I’m sure glad you sent this my way, God” but rather an exultation of the Glory of God without making any pretense of understanding it; and an act of the most profound faith even the midst of crushing pain:
Glorified and sanctified be G-d's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen
The prayer does not ask that the mourner be comforted, nor does it presume to explain the world except to remind us that God created it as He willed. It doesn’t put us at the center of things, desperate to explain why this happened in this way for benefit of the bereaved. It reminds the mourner to remove his gaze from pain and look to the Source of Life.
Pain brings the mourner to say Kaddish; the prayer draws him through that pain to God. It doesn’t try to change pain to pleasure for that would be dishonest. As He of the Impossible Penances would say, pain is part of the gift and we do not get to choose what parts we accept and what parts we do not accept. Those holes in my heart are because something good is being changed without my permission; they are evidence of the goodness of the gift. But they are still holes and holes hurt and to pretend otherwise is just not possible.
So I think giving thanks has a different, deeper connotation than just warm feelings of gratitude, excellent as those may be, critical as they are to growing in the spiritual life. I think thanksgiving is more about making the real, and sometimes very difficult, effort to take ourselves out of the center of the picture and put God back into it. And that sometimes happens by sheer act of will, apart from the emotions that drive it.
Among those ten lepers was certainly a common joy and relief at being healed; surely they were amazed and in some sense grateful for the great and unexpected cure. Surely they were all ten appreciative, thankful in some inchoate and emotional sense . But only the one, who came back to glorify God, was truly thankful in the religious sense for he made the focus of his emotions God; and he was made whole as well as cured of his illness. That act of will was also an act of faith and it is that Jesus seems to have counted as thankfulness.
The saints and martyrs are of one voice in being thankful for their trials, but it’s also clear that they did not fail to experience the very real pain of them. This Thanksgiving hardly rises to the level of being roasted on a gridiron, eaten by lions or suffering fifty years of spiritual desolation, but the pain in my heart is sharp, none the less. I am thankful—but I am not happy.
So for now, I’m going with the idea that thanksgiving—thankfulness-is not just a pleasant emotion, nor need it be accompanied by one. We are commanded to give thanks, and even God cannot command us to feel that which we do not feel. But He can command us to act as we should and through that action, to put ourselves in proper relationship to Him where all will be well and we will be made whole in spite of ourselves.
The Church builds that act of thanksgiving into every mass, and I am grateful beyond words. Christ left us a way to express thanks when words won’t come and emotions are unruly and we are in the midst of a growing that leaves us smarting and disoriented. That way--the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist, is honest and real and powerful even when we cannot enter into it with a full heart. Just the very act of entering is thanksgiving itself, God's gift to us in pain as well as in joy. We come to the altar with our brothers and sisters who can talk when we cannot and who bear us up when we are weak, lending their strength and their voices in our need. Together we stand at the foot of the cross, where Mary, in the greatest sorrow known to man, suffered and cried and…gave thanks.
For children who grow and leave the nest, for friends who come in and out of our lives and leave us changed and for the pain that all life brings as we become what we are because of the touch of God….Thanks be to God.