It’s that time of year when Americans turn their hearts toward home and prepare for a Thanksgiving feast, one that brings us around the table to celebrate.
For many of us, it’s a time to give thanks for the blessings of family and friends, for our homes and our work. We give thanks for freedom and peace and security at a time when much of the world is torn by war and strife.
The Church teaches very wisely that in order to feast, we first have to enter into a fast. In other words, we empty ourselves and trust in Him, relying on His love and strength to carry us.
The world will tell you a different story: Feast every day, indulge yourself and fill up on as much stuff as possible. If we follow that path, we might find temporary happiness, but it doesn’t lead to a spirit of thanksgiving or to joy.
Giving generously from our want rather than our excess, a spirit of solidarity with the poor — these arise from a heart that has practiced self-denial for love of God.
Sleep on the floor a few nights or put yourself to bed hungry, and suddenly you’ve got empathy for that homeless person standing at the freeway entrance. Then there’s the bonus: a greater appreciation for the simple blessings of a comfortable bed and enough to eat. Step out in faith (and in spite of your own financial concerns) and write a generous check to support Catholic Charities or a pro-life pregnancy center, and your trust in Providence expands. Faith is like a muscle that grows stronger when we train hard and push through pain.
Though we ought to give thanks each day for all God has done for us, Thanksgiving Day also calls us to ponder what it means, as St. Paul tells us, to “in all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
We might find it easy to thank God when things are going well in our lives, but it seems counterintuitive when we’re struggling. How can we give thanks in “all circumstances” when we’re hurting? The answer is that we can’t — unless we’ve learned to cultivate a thankful heart and rely on the grace of God in our lives.
I think of a dear friend, a religious sister, who spent the entire first five decades of her life on the East Coast. At a time when most people begin to think about retirement and settling down to a more quiet existence, God had other plans for Sr. Jean Marie. Her religious superior dealt stunning news: She was to leave everything behind and move to Phoenix.
I’m sure Sister shed more than a few tears at the thought of leaving, but because she had learned to trust God completely and thank Him in all circumstances, she said: “If He’s leading me to Phoenix, He must have something good for me there.” And of course, He did. She found love and blessings and joy here in a desert that at first seemed so bleak.
Things aren’t going your way in life? Thank God. Your friend has abandoned you or betrayed you? Thank God. Your doctor gave you a tough diagnosis? Thank God. Thank Him for His love and protection and tender care, thank Him though your heart is breaking.
It sounds crazy and you probably don’t want to hear it right now, but we can believe it. God has our best interests at heart and He is faithful. We may not understand His reasons for our troubles while we pass through this earthly exile of ours, but we can be sure that He loves us, has a plan for our good and will never abandon us.
We give thanks, even when it is painful to do so, because we trust Him completely. In the midst of wonder or woe we can learn to say, along with other believers across the centuries, these words from Chronicles: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, His mercy endures forever” (1 Chr 16:34).