It would be nice to celebrate Thanksgiving more often than once a year. Actually, we wouldn’t need to do the entire thing, because major chunks of the feast seem destined to be with us for all time. We already have a glut of football for months on end. Nor do we need to take to the next level our indulgence in food. As for shopping, I’ll admit that an entire season devoted to it is a welcome relief from endless political campaigns. But my own sense is that we don’t really need much encouragement in that department, though you’d never know it from all the advertising.
However, what I think we could use more of is the “giving thanks” part. It’s that ever-so-brief ritual in the holiday when we acknowledge our debt to somebody other than ourselves. It’s the slice of the Thanksgiving holiday that is edging closer to extinction; and that, I think, is a shame.
I would submit that giving thanks gets shorter and shorter shrift these days, and there’s lots of reasons why. For one thing, it’s not so easy any more to see the connection between people’s toil and our own life. When goods travel thousands of miles piled up on a huge container ship, it’s often tough to know where our stuff comes from, much less figure out who made it. And in an era of massive and anonymous production, we lose track of whose creative talent makes all this possible. We just go to the big-box stores and expect it all to be there. After a while it becomes so easy to take it all for granted.
Yet another impediment to heart-felt thanksgiving is a core value in our own culture. We live in a society that prizes independence and personal initiative, and we lionize the self-made person. I for one would prefer not to live under some other arrangement, but there’s a price to pay for all of this. It’s very easy to toy with the idea that I earned all this myself and owe no debt to anyone for it. Never mind the creativity and toil that so many other self-starters invested to make possible my own independent life. No, it’s pretty much me and me alone who made me who I am today. So goes the conventional wisdom, and that’s a dead end.
In a monastery, as in any community for that matter, you simply cannot run the risk of reserving thanksgiving to one prayer at one meal a year. Thanksgiving has to be woven through the entire fabric of community, or you end up with a bunch of rugged individualists who see no debt to or dependence upon anybody else. Perhaps that’s why it never occurred to Saint Benedict to schedule a special feast of thanksgiving in the monastic calendar. He presumed that giving thanks had to permeate the entire regimen of the monastery.
The fact is, instances of thanksgiving are sprinkled generously through the monastic day, so much so that we tend to overlook them. Our prayers are only the most obvious place where we find them, and meal prayers come to mind most quickly. But the theme of thanksgiving runs through the whole of the liturgy of the hours, and many of the Psalms are specifically prayers of thanksgiving. Likewise in our petitions we pray regularly for “those who do good to us,” simply because their generosity makes our lives together possible.
But certainly not the least important act of thanksgiving is our appreciation for the work and talents of others. As I’ve matured I’ve become increasingly appreciative of what my brothers do to enhance our life in the monastery. At the very least, their gifts mean that I don’t have to do everything myself. At best, I realize that they do so many things far better than I, given the meager state of my own talents. For their sakes and mine, not only do I have to be grateful to them, but I am also obliged to give them my thanks every now and again.
In Benedict’s thinking, thanksgiving is more than acknowledging a debt to others — and to God — for what they have done. Something more dynamic is at work here, as Benedict suggests in his Prologue to the Rule. There comes a moment, after all this work and prayer and life together, when a monk finally realizes that something astounding has been going on, just beneath the surface and often beyond our notice. And about this moment of insight Benedict has this to say: “These people fear the Lord, and do not become elated over their good deeds; they judge it is the Lord’s power, not their own, that brings about the good in them. They praise the Lord working in them….”
Thanksgiving then is a hugely important act, and because it is we can’t reserve it to just one meal a year. In giving thanks we confess the abundance of goodness around us, and we recognize the power of God stirring not only in our neighbor but deep within ourselves. How extraordinary that God would be so mindful of us. And if God takes the time to do great things in us each day, then why would we not want to give thanks, each and ever day?
+On November 17th I presided and preached at a Mass for the School of Theology/Seminary at Saint John’s University. You can access the sermon, Leading People to Jesus, in the section marked Presentations.
+On November 21st I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, NY.
+Last week the weather and the success of our football team conspired to make necessary a unique cooperative venture. This fall our football team won the conference title, meaning that they would play their first play-off game at home this past Saturday. With 8,000+ visitors expected, somehow we had to move fourteen inches of snow from the seats in the stadium and off the field. A great team of people, including a few monks, accomplished the feat. Saint John’s went on to beat the College of Saint Scholastica from Duluth, securing a victory over a fellow Benedictine college and a place in the next round of the play-offs.
+A recent book on the abbey church has been published by University of Minnesota Press. This fall author Victoria Young has made several appearances on campus, recounting the research that helped her to produce Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space. For those unfamiliar with the architecture of the abbey church, I have put together a gallery of photos that illustrates both the vastness of the building and the attention to detail that is its hallmark.
+I have finally owned up to the fact that winter is here to stay, as the pictures in today’s post suggest. However, we in Minnesota lost the right to feel sorry for ourselves when Buffalo accumulated more inches of snow than anyone could measure. I have since realized that Buffalo’s mission statement includes a provision to make Minnesota’s weather seem benign.