It is of course right and proper to keep Christ in Christmas, but can it be right and proper to introduce the saints into Thanksgiving? Isn’t Thanksgiving a secular holiday, as oxymoronic as that might seem? And even were we to concede that Thanksgiving had a religious origin, wasn’t it very much of Protestant origin; and not merely of Protestant origin but of specifically Puritan origin? Surely there’s no room for saints on this particular date in the calendar, any more than there was any room for the calendar of the saints in the lives of the Pilgrim Fathers?
Perhaps, were we to argue the point, we could claim, quite correctly, that the Pilgrim Fathers, as Englishmen, were merely carrying on the ancient tradition of the harvest festival, in which thanks were given for the year’s harvest in Catholic churches up and down the length of the country, and up and down the length of the centuries, dating back to the dawn of Christianity itself – and beyond. This is, however, not the point of the argument. The point is that saints belong in the Thanksgiving celebrations because it is the saints who show us best how to give thanks.
The saints didn’t simply give thanks on the one day assigned to it each year, they lived their whole lives, and every day of their lives, year round, in thanksgiving. It is this vision of the giving of thanks which Catholics should have at the forefront of their minds this Thanksgiving, and every Thanksgiving, and every single day between this Thanksgiving and the next. This spirit of gratitude was encapsulated in the words of G. K. Chesterton, a saintly man who is not yet in the canon of saints:
I thank thee, O Lord, for the stones in the street
I thank thee for the hay-carts yonder and for the houses built and half-built
That fly past me as I stride.
But most of all for the great wind in my nostrils
As if thine own nostrils were close.
In his autobiography Chesterton explains how gratitude saved him from the grip of the despair of philosophical pessimism. “I hung on to the remains of religion by one thin thread of thanks,” he writes. “I thanked whatever gods might be, not like Swinburne, because no life lived for ever, but because any life lived at all; not, like Henley for my unconquerable soul (for I have never been so optimistic about my own soul as all that) but for my own soul and my own body, even if they could be conquered.”
Having escaped the clutches of Schopenhauer and other denizens of existential darkness through his clinging to this “one thin thread of thanks”, the young Chesterton would grow in gratitude so that his every word seemed to glow with gratitude for his very existence. “Give me miraculous eyes to see my eyes,” he writes. “Those rolling mirrors made alive in me, terrible crystals more incredible, than all the things they see.” These are the words of a man-alive, a man fully alive through the giving of thanks for his very existence. It was, for instance, Chesterton who said that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds but the best of all impossible worlds. We are not living in the midst of a highly improbable sequence of accidents but in the presence of a miracle:
What I meant, whether or no I managed to say it, was this; that no man knows how much he is an optimist, even when he calls himself a pessimist, because he has not really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything. At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy.
It was this sense of the “sunrise of wonder” which animated the faith and philosophy of two of Chesterton’s favorite saints, Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas, of both of whom he wrote biographies. St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun” is full of this spirit of thanksgiving in which the saint praises the Creator through the intercession of His creatures, through Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and Brother Wind and Sister Water.
As for Thomas Aquinas, he taught that there was a direct connection between the giving of thanks and the “sunrise of wonder” of which Chesterton speaks. In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas shows how a sense of gratitude is the fruit of humility and that this gratitude allows us to see with eyes wide open in wonder. And this is not all. St. Thomas goes on to explain that wonder leads to contemplation and that contemplation results, in turn, to the dilation (dilatatio) of the soul into the fullness of reality. Or, to put the matter another way, thanksgiving is the fruit of a humble soul which awakens the soul to wonder and contemplation so that it can open and grow into the fullness of truth.
Once we see the saints in the spirit of their own giving of thanks, we can see why they should have a central place in our celebration of Thanksgiving.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally published on November 27, 2019.)
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