Thanksgiving: a spiritual exercise
I have a theory. It is very unofficial. I haven't done any scientific research on it. I wouldn't even know where to begin — well, especially since I am not a scientist. Here's my theory: Those people who go around the table and say what they are thankful for at Thanksgiving dinner — they are happier than those who don't.
There is something magical about hearing gratitude spoken aloud: It breeds more gratitude. As we listen to our loved ones share the people and moments that are special to them, we begin to look at our own life in this light.
You might be saying to yourself, "But you don't have to eat dinner with my cousin Chad who hates my politics and chews with his mouth open."
And I'm telling you, change the conversation. Gratitude creates unity and couldn't we all use some of that right now? By demonstrating a thankful posture, you encourage this view in others.
One year, my family celebrated Thanksgiving with friends, a "Friendsgiving," if you will. The host family established this tradition of going around the table and sharing what we were thankful for.
We were, of course, starving, after a morning of fasting for the big meal but as each person shared, we found ourselves sitting taller, finding ourselves fortified.
I remember my son, then preschool age, shared something simple in his small mousy voice. Across the table my normally cynical urbane friend wiped tears from his eyes. This act set the tone for the rest of the meal. We each knew we had much to be thankful for.
St. Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians, reminded them (and us) to our call to unity. He writes, "(I) urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace" (4:1-3).
This past year, or two, or three, we have focused on what we were missing out on, in-person this and unmasked that.
We began to look at others as whether they were in our group or not; our political persuasion, vaccinated or unvaccinated, our ethnic background, until the divisions became so bewildering, one wondered if any people agreed enough on any topic to be a group.
It is so much easier for us to concentrate on what we do not have or what is different between us instead of living "in a manner worthy of the call (we) have received" through Christ Jesus.
To agree to work toward unity? That's the kind of radical behavior we as Catholic Christians are called to be a part of. Just as God reconciled us to him, we too are to be reconciled to each other.
Thanksgiving is the perfect moment on the calendar to remind us to return to a thankful posture. Gratitude opens the door for this behavioral adjustment. St. Paul appeals to us to treat each other with humility, gentleness, patience and love. What if our Thanksgiving table was filled with these character traits instead of tension, strife and conflict?
Missionary Elisabeth Elliot said, "Thanksgiving is a spiritual exercise, necessary to the building of a healthy soul." Elliot knew something about this revolutionary change in heart. Her husband, Jim, was killed on the mission field.
Instead of turning to hatred or division, Elliot knew the boundless love and grace of Jesus and returned to serve the very same people who had killed her husband. She knew that the love of Jesus was transformative.
I like the idea of gratitude as a spiritual exercise. Exercise is difficult at first. The first time you try to run or to lift a weight, it is not so easy, but as you get stronger, you are able to perform the exercise more easily.
Same with spiritual exercises. At first it is awkward and challenging, but as you practice, you find yourself able to be grateful, to see the world through that new lens ... and to see people in this light too.
Elisabeth Elliot said thanksgiving "takes us out of the stuffiness of ourselves into the fresh breeze and sunlight of the will of God."
I don't know about you, but when I walk in my own will, I am unable to see beyond Cousin Chad's politics or the way he chews with his mouth open. When I walk in the "sunshine of the will of God" I see my cousin, my co-worker, my enemy, in a new light: Jesus the light of the world.
Honestly, this is the only way I can live in a manner worthy of the call of Christ. I cannot do it on my own. Unity seems like a huge, lofty, pie-in-the-sky sort of goal right now, but I am willing to take that one step forward, by learning to be grateful.
So this Thanksgiving, I'm asking, What are you thankful for? Go ahead. Say it aloud. I'm listening.
By Shemaiah Gonzalez, Catholic News Service