Column: The wonderful focus of Thanksgiving Day


When my kids were young, we lived far from relatives, and Thanksgiving Day included a crew of friends with lots of children. Our traditional prayer before the meal included each person naming something for which he or she was thankful.

Easy enough; we were very blessed.

But as we’d pray, the youngest members shied away from using their imaginations. Soon, several would repeat “my family” as their attention drifted to the turkey and trimmings.

Their reluctance to be creative was understandable. We’d starved them all morning, and now we were putting them on the spot.

And besides, I think that true gratitude can be a complicated matter.

Thanksgiving Day is one of the United States’ best traditions.

That’s an idealistic perspective, of course. Historians have shown that all was not so placid between the Native Americans, whose own survival was suddenly at stake, and the interlopers from Europe, who struggled desperately to make it through the first brutal winters.

Nevertheless, the basic story is a good and simple one: A group of immigrants, having already buried many loved ones in alien ground, thanked God for the harvest that might sustain their diminished group through another winter.

Over the years, the tradition evolved into today’s holiday, possibly our nicest because it’s less materialistic and overhyped than most.

There’s a wonderful focus to Thanksgiving — faith, family, friends, food.

But occasionally, I sense an American attitude of generic gratefulness; not a bad thing, but not a great thing if it leaves out the author of life to whom our gratitude is to be extended.

Sometimes being thankful can be a real challenge, and, without God, it makes no sense.

The Catholic notion of stewardship, articulated by the U.S. bishops’ pastoral “Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response,” makes clear that thankfulness lies at the very heart of being a disciple of Jesus.

The rub for many is that it’s easy to say “thanks” when we get what we want — or what we think we want.

It’s harder to thank God for God’s presence in our lives when we most sincerely aren’t getting what we want.

Only thanking God for the good stuff as we see it, or the answer to prayers as we posed them, is probably the “illusory religion” that the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray was eluding to when he wrote this:

“The maxim of illusory religion runs: ‘Fear not; trust in God and he will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you’; that of real religion, on the contrary, is, ‘Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.'”

That we are prepared to be thankful, and indeed are thankful, as we see our lives unfold in ways we didn’t plan is at the heart of Christian gratitude and “real religion.”

It would have been tough for those kids who sat around our Thanksgiving table to give thanks for the soccer goal they missed, and it’s hard to say “thank you” to the God, who opens the door to something that we didn’t expect when we knocked.

How many of us have gone through crises in our lives, only to discover on the other end that what we saw as a tragedy was later revealed to be a blessing?

It’s easy — and important — to thank God always for gifts as we perceive them. It’s more challenging but more powerful to keep hearts of trust and thanksgiving open to that which we fear and didn’t choose, and to believe that God will be with us through it all.