The Way of BeautyA Hymn of Thanksgiving

The thirteenth-century German mystic, Meister Eckhart once noted that “if the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank-you,’ that would suffice.” William Shakespeare echoes these words: “O Lord, that lends me life, lend me a heart replete with thanksgiving” (“Henry V”).

This Thanksgiving, Marine Sargent Andrew Tahmoorressi will prolong his ‘thank-you’ for his release from a jail in Mexico and his return to American soil.  The recently-released prisoners of war must be thrilled to have their feet firmly planted on American soil. More thanksgiving! One need not be imprisoned by a foreign power to know the feeling of being an American.  When it comes to liberty, there is no country in the world quite like America.

The Pilgrims of ‘Massachusetts’

The Pilgrims laid the ground plan for the great American enterprise when they settled in Plymouth in 1620.  The one hundred plus men, women, and children had endured miserable conditions during the sixty-five days’ journey on the Mayflower.  The trip was so perilous that thirty of them did not survive it.  They had left England in search of religious freedom. They had gone to Holland for the same reason.  After a short sojourn there, they ventured out to an unknown land far from their European domiciles.  Determined to realize their dream, they found a new home in the northeastern part of our country.

Three-Day Feast of Harvest

The following year in 1621, the Pilgrims feasted for three days with the peace-loving Patuxet Native Americans.  During that first winter, Chief Massasoit had looked kindly on the settlers donating food stuffs to the fledgling colony when supplies from England were delayed or insufficient.  Squanto, a Patuxet, taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel, grow corn and other crops.  He also served as an interpreter for them.  The Patuxets were a gift outright!

And so, the fifty Pilgrims, survivors all, and the Native Americans celebrated the harvest.  Cooking the feast were four Pilgrim women:  Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna Winslow.  Younger members helped as well. The community thanked the Power of the Most High for blessings too numerous to count.

By 1789, “a national day of prayer, humiliation, and thanksgiving” was declared, and in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, prompted by a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day.  It was celebrated on the final Thursday in November 1863. The Patuxets and the Pilgrims, President Lincoln, and a great many others have made our American Thanksgiving possible. And we thank them all.

The abundant smorgasbord of food we enjoy on this day reminds us, as it did the Patuxets and the Pilgrims, that we are creatures and receivers of the fruits of the earth.  Therefore, a meal prompts us to acknowledge our own limitation by means of a prayer of thanks which is bound up with the meal.

Thanksgiving:  An Ancient Practice

The notion of setting aside time to thank God for blessings received is an ancient practice. Gratitude is the fruit of a cultivated person or persons.  A heart filled with gratitude is disposed to all the other virtues.

‘You can never say thank-you enough,’ the Jews learned from their Exodus experience. Their Passover meal turned out to be a hurried but heartfelt thanksgiving for the wonders God did in rescuing them from slavery in Egypt.  This is the prayer of every Sabbath, and these psalms of blessing and thanksgiving were prayed daily.  In the Passover banquet, they held a special significance. 

Thanksgiving for the Eucharist

We Catholics are double receivers, blessed beyond measure. God gives us his Son as nourishment in the Eucharist. The prayer of thanks strikes the right tone as we respond to God's wondrous benefits to us.  Thanksgiving to God should be the very basis of Christian conduct; it has been the prayer, the Eucharistic prayer, since the early Church.  When it is combined with giving thanks for the fruits of the earth, we are participating in the highest of God’s gifts.  The Preface for Thanksgiving Day reads in part:

“Through your Word, you called all things into being,
that you might bestow on us your love
reflected in the vastness of the universe
and the bounty of this earth.
You placed creation in our care,
Yet you alone sustain all life with the gentle dew of your Word
And the life-giving breath of the Spirit.
Your gifts of nature have not exhausted your goodness,
For the fullness of your love is revealed in the sending of your Son.
Our hearts are moved to thankful praise . . . .”

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