The Thanksgiving holiday affords us, both as individuals and as a society, a chance to turn our attention away from the self-focused worries that tend to dominate our consciousness. Instead, we spend a day thinking about the rest of the world and how many good things we have received through the goodness of God’s providence and the generosity of those who care for us. Gratitude opens our hearts and minds, refreshing them both and curing, or at least giving us a respite from, egoism.
The most successful businessman and the most brilliant politician usually rise to their positions on the tide of personal talent and through many influences beyond their control: an attentive teacher, a generous mentor, a happy coincidence, a serendipitous opportunity, a lesson learned in an unplanned circumstance. The self-made man is a myth. Even those who strive most for success only achieve it with the aid of others.
This is why the images of Thanksgiving spark joy as well as humility: the cornucopia overflowing with fruits of the earth, the fallen leaves with their glorious but fading colors, the community of extended family and friends gathered around a feast-filled table. All that we have and enjoy comes from a combination of our own smarts and strengths and a whole network of people and factors far beyond our control.
No one understood the importance of gratitude more than Jesus. The Gospels often show him giving thanks to his Father: for example, before the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, after his disciples came back from their first mission, and during the Last Supper. He himself was moved to praise the virtue of gratitude when only one of the ten lepers he cleansed returned to give him thanks, even while he felt the pain of the other nine’s ingratitude. Jesus knows that an ungrateful heart is a closed heart, and a closed heart cannot receive the love and grace that give meaning to our lives.
In the Catholic tradition, the Mass, our central act of worship and the most perfect prayer, is called the celebration of the Eucharist. It’s an interesting word. It comes from a Greek root that means, precisely, “Thanksgiving.” The highest act of worship and the purest prayer, then, is that of gratitude. Here is what some spiritual writers have called the shortcut to holiness, and holiness is merely another name for true, lasting happiness.
Why not test whether gratitude really is the shortcut to holiness? Why not live the spirit of Thanksgiving every day, instead of only once a year, just to see what happens? I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
FR. JOHN BARTUNEK, LC