Grateful for Providence: Developing a Posture of Thanksgiving

COMMENTARY: God is present within every aspect of life, working in our midst. Gratitude flows from our ability to perceive it.

Gather together and reflect on God’s blessings on Thanksgiving and always.
Gather together and reflect on God’s blessings on Thanksgiving and always. (photo: Emily Malloy photos)

Merriam-Webster defines the word “thanksgiving” as “a public acknowledgment or celebration of divine goodness.” An alternative definition given of the same word is “a prayer expressing gratitude.”

These definitions serve as a stark contrast to the “grace” quoted in the 1965 film Shenandoah, starring Jimmy Stewart as farmer Charlie Anderson: “Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be eatin’ it, if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for the food we’re about to eat. Amen.”

Though the movie’s audience may be dismayed at the outlandish prayer uttered over the meal, a deep truth is revealed in this scene about the American spirit. At first blush, one might recognize the irony in Anderson’s quasi-blessing of the provisions made possible only through man’s cooperation with God’s creation; to many people, this is now an unrecognizable reality, marked by ignorance of the precarious nature of farming. When we lose sight that all we have comes from God, how could we begin to give thanks? Our prayer devolves into that of Mr. Anderson, one of self-congratulation.

Self-reliance and meritocracy have deep roots in American culture. It formed the psyche — and moreover, the spirituality — of generations, hallmarked by being weighed and measured by work ethic. The notion that one could pull himself up from his bootstraps to provide a “better life” was the cause of innumerous filled ships crossing the Atlantic in the 18th and 19th centuries. This outlook on personal economy and work ethic spilled into the spiritual life. Subconsciously, one is able to deceive himself that he can be sustained by his own merit, regardless of Providence. Self-reliance inevitably bears a child by the name of entitlement, a natural consequence from the seeding of the soil of ingratitude.

Replacing self-reliance with self-examination reveals that we often pray with the hopes of conforming God’s will to our own, relegating any prayers of thanksgiving to be in the same tone of “we thank you just the same.” However, when trials inevitably appear, despair seeps into our hearts as we shoulder our burdens without deference to or discernment of God’s will. When we rely upon ourselves, we do not permit God the space therein to do his providential work.

Ultimately, there is a consequence of this spirit that may affect our posture during the Thanksgiving holiday. It is supposed to be a day wholly set apart to give thanks to God for his provision, of course.

“All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights …” (James 1: 17).

A retrospective glance at the first Thanksgiving reveals the unfolding of circumstances that enabled the survival of the Pilgrims owing to the aid of a man named Squanto. A series of unfortunate events in his life (namely being kidnapped to be sold into slavery; however, his freedom was purchased by Spanish monks, and after some time, he eventually journeyed back to the New World by way of England and was Catholic, too) made it possible for him to come to the aid of the destitute and desperate Pilgrims. Often the great mysteries of our lives, or tragic circumstances, work toward an unforeseen good.

God is present within every aspect of life, working in our midst. Gratitude flows from our ability to perceive it.

The Bible, of course, is rich with accounts of reliance upon the Lord, most notably God’s provisions of daily manna for the Israelites in the desert. When they tried to save food in a spirit of self-reliance, it was ruined by worms. God reminds us in Deuteronomy 8 to not fool ourselves into thinking that our “wealth” is the result of “[our] own power and the strength of [our] own hand.” Throughout the Scriptures, and in contemplating the lives of the saints, we are reminded that faith deepens when we are dependent upon God for daily needs. Calling to mind these stories of Providence shores us upon our own journey.

The antidote to self-reliance and ingratitude is a thankful posture. To do this, we must be recollected in daily life to discern the opportunities for gratitude. To see God working in our lives we must not be in his way.

We are also able to bless others by sharing these examples of God’s provision with loved ones and gather these gifts into the collective memory to develop an acquired wisdom that looks to the past to inform the present.

November is a beautiful month for the American Catholic: It is an ending of time, namely Ordinary Time, that begins with the commemoration of All Saints and reaches a climactic end with the feast of Christ the King, celebrating the sovereignty and fidelity of Jesus Christ. The natural rhythm of creation helps us to recognize God’s work in our lives in a tangible way on Thanksgiving Day.

We celebrate the harvest of the fields while also meditating upon the Last Things, through which God harvests the most precious of his creation: souls. Let us publicly acknowledge and celebrate divine goodness. Seek out an early-morning Mass before meal preparations begin. Place a large piece of kraft paper over the dining table with markers and crayons available for guests to write down their greatest blessings. Take the time to be recollected and ponder the hard times and see God’s work through them.

Most of all pray, in gratitude, for your beloved dead whose seats are vacant at the table in this month of remembrance.

As I recently wrote in Theology of Home IV: Arranging the Seasons about remembering our beloved dead: “Those who came before us laid a foundation through millennia that aids us in this most sacred journey home to the Father. Knowledge built upon knowledge, as beauty instructed beauty. The dead have a tremendous legacy that demands acknowledgment and love. ... As we see in the life of faith, God transcends time and place wherein He bridges heaven and earth, something most evident in November as the Church winds down the last weeks of the liturgical calendar.”

Thanksgiving Day is a celebration of the ordinary things of life, which, when viewed through the lens of God’s loving provision, are extraordinary.