The Year of Mercy comes to an end just as Americans are setting our tables for our traditional harvest feast.
Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, but the coincidence is pleasant. It sets a nice bookend on a special year devoted to appreciating God’s graciousness (and we can attend Mass on Thanksgiving Day to recall just that). When the news anchors and celebrities remind us to “count our blessings,” we Catholics would do well to recall how God has blessed us. In addition, ponder: How has God been merciful to you over this past year? And how can we foster more gratitude and mercy in our hearts?
The message of Thanksgiving is beguilingly simple. Who could say a bad word about gratitude? I sometimes reflect, though, on how spectacularly deaf our society is to this message. We mouth the expected pieties every Thanksgiving, but it’s actually quite hard for us to think about bounty as a proper source of gratitude.
Let’s grab a quick insight from this secular feast of Thanksgiving (which is nicely underscored by our Holy Father’s Year of Mercy). Sometimes the appropriate reaction to material bounty is gratitude.
Don’t feel ashamed of your sumptuous Thanksgiving table. Enjoy it. Then give thanks to God for those simple pleasures and the chance to share them with people you love.
True gratitude is one of the best safeguards against excessive material attachment. It implicitly acknowledges that all the good things in our lives are properly seen as gifts from God. We may have worked hard and lived prudently to attain our comforts and securities, but even if we have, we are always indebted to others for the opportunity to work hard and build good lives for ourselves. God gave us bodies and minds capable of work and prudent decision-making. Our parents, pastors and teachers helped to form our intellect and character. Our ancestors built a prosperous and ordered nation, which we have been blessed to inherit. Soldiers protected it, sometimes at the cost of their lives.
More immediately, we are always indebted to the many other people who support and enrich our lives in myriad ways: neighbors and friends, employers and employees, spouses and children, pastors and fellow parishioners. Even when we feel alone or neglected, we are in fact buoyed up by a tremendous network of supportive people, without whom our lives would be quite miserable and short. In our most desolate moments, we might remember the saints who paved the road before us across two long millennia, enabling us to inherit the faith. Then we can remember that those same saints are praying for us even as we set our Thanksgiving tables.
True gratitude also opens us up to real generosity. When we interpret the good things in our lives as blessings, that helps us to feel loved and blessed, which naturally opens us to the desire to spread that goodness to others — which was what the Year of Mercy was all about.
Instead of agonizing over intractable-seeming “structural injustices,” we may find ourselves asking, “What can I do?” That enquiry might lead us towards a formalized relief effort, but it might just move us to invite a fellow parishioner for Thanksgiving dinner, to cheer up a neighbor or relative who has been lonely or grieving or to put up some holiday décor in a place where it might be enjoyed.
When we are genuinely anxious for chances to do good, a world of pain and brokenness can suddenly look like a world of opportunity to help those in need, whether monetarily or spiritually. How can we, where God has placed us, put the works of mercy into practice beyond the Year of Mercy?
Of course, in a materially rich society, we do need to think about ways to discipline our appetites. A fixation on riches and material comforts can certainly be a spiritual stumbling block. Still, shouldn’t there be at least one time each year when we can look on a large, shared meal with family and friends as God’s merciful gift, and not just as a sinful caloric overload?
Christ’s disciples across the centuries have included people of all classes, living under widely divergent material conditions. Many of us would surely do well to live more simply. Oddly, though, our first step towards a healthier perspective on material goods might not involve rejection so much as gratitude.
If we can look beyond the turkey and see the feast’s true Founder, we may find that even a pumpkin pie can offer a small opportunity for experiencing God’s grace.
Rachel Lu, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.