For Catholics, Thanksgiving is not just a holiday, but also a form of prayer. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2648) teaches us that “Every joy and suffering, every event and need can become the matter for thanksgiving which, sharing in that of Christ, should fill one’s whole life: ‘Give thanks in all circumstances’” (1 Thess 5:18). Like so many of us, I find my prayer life diverges all too often into petition, which rapidly diminishes into a litany of all the things that I pray will change for the better in my life and in the lives of those closest to me. Recently, however, it occurred to me that thanksgiving should take priority over petition, not just because it is right or just, but because thanksgiving—gratitude—is a fundamentally human act.
Before anything else, we are, first and foremost, creatures of God. We owe the entirety of our created existence to the omnibenevolent First Person of the Trinity, and the natural, intuitive response to awareness of our creatureliness is to give ourselves back to the Father in utter wonder, profound gratitude, and absolute love. In the beginning, we were the pinnacle of creation and now we are the fallen and redeemed children, but we are still creatures owing our lives and the world surrounding us to the Father. And since this creatureliness is at the core of our identity, there is no more perfect human act than a gratitude so consuming that it takes the form of self-surrender.
We have inherited the Greek term kenosis from the Patriarchs and we understand it to refer to the “self-emptying” of Christ on the cross—to nothing less than the complete, unreserved, utter and irrevocable gift of self that Christ gave to the Father, and through His sacrifice, to fallen humanity. This “self-emptying” lies at the heart of the Eucharist and therefore at the heart of our faith. For us, it becomes the act of childlike—creaturely—abandon to the Father, to which we all are called through the eternal reality of Christ’s sacrifice. When we allow ourselves to behave as God’s creatures, this ontological self-giving infuses and heals our lives, our marriages, our families, and our societies. It is simultaneously the most powerful and the most human act in which we can engage because it enables us to become vessels for that same life-generating, earth-sundering, death-conquering divine Love that is both our origin and our destiny.
For most of us, enacting kenosis in every part of our lives is more of a life-long vocation than it is a present reality. Yet, I believe that keeping thanksgiving at the center of our prayer lives is a simple place to begin. As humans, we can feel “thankful” for many things, but the very pulse and breath of true gratitude is an almost helpless and yet completely unreserved gift of self back to the person to whom you are feeling grateful. For example, if we envision the first time that we were not only told we were loved, but that we felt loved to the very essence of our being, the gratitude for that love naturally and seamlessly translated itself into a loving gift of self back to the beloved. In other words, in its most essential and natural (creaturely) identity, gratitude takes the form of self-giving love.
The object, then, is to learn to see our lives, our bodies, our families, and the world around us with enough wonder that we learn to feel true gratitude for the manifold gifts that we have been given. The recovery of this childlike wonder is a challenge for most of us and requires nothing less than the dismantling of our culturally constructed cynicism and entitlement. We typically access this wonder through exposing ourselves to natural marvels like a sunrise, a waterfall, or an infinity of ocean. But we find that even with the smallest degree of effort, we can take a step back to examine the unique and delicate threads of a fingerprint, or the smell of wood burning on the crisp autumn air, or the incredible symmetry of a human body breathing, eating, or laughing. It takes only the slightest moment to choose to see the nourishment of another species in a beestung apple rather than the imperfection you are about to consume. It takes barely a second to glory in the sweeping panorama of the changing leaves rather than to dread several hours of raking.
We have been given the freedom, the time, and the faculty of being able to change how our brains think and perceive the world around us. We have an infinite capacity for creativity within a finite time to create. So now is the time to recreate how we see ourselves and the world around us—to stop complaining about problems at work or things we wish we had done sooner or better. Now is the time to stop judging every stranger we encounter or blaming our family members for something for which we are just as culpable. Now is the time to re-teach ourselves what gratitude means, and, through this, to re-learn how to be grateful for the little things.
We all have things we wish were different or better about our lives and ourselves. This yearning for something more is deeply human, but it should be utilized as a powerful stimulant to help us achieve our dreams and goals rather than an excuse to be dissatisfied with what we do or do not have. The reality remains that the majority of Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving are among the most privileged people in the world. It is therefore our duty to not only teach ourselves how to appreciate all that we have been given, but also to recover our identities as creatures of the Father, whose fundamental act is self-giving gratitude.
When we search for the heart of gratitude in a culture that eats too much, drinks too often, gorges itself on visual stimuli, and drowns itself in technology, we need to retreat in order expose ourselves to silence, stillness, and the peacefulness of a natural world that still moves according to the rhythm of a divine and celestial dance. So let us make this Thanksgiving into a retreat, not only into the splendor of the changing leaves and the clean, deep quality of the chilling air, but also into our loved ones and the small, quiet places of smiling rest which we have forgotten to remember.
As Americans, we have this beautiful tradition of stepping back from the hectic pace of modern life and celebrating those things for which we are grateful. As Catholics, then, let us put thanksgiving as a form of prayer at the heart of our Thanksgiving holiday, and let it not only transform this single day, but transform each day into an act of selfless giving to the Father in joyful and wondrous gratitude.
May you have a most blessed and happy Thanksgiving!