Richard Norman acknowledges that there may be little at the moment to encourage us to give thanks but exhorts us not to forget the importance of thanksgiving
Members of Forward in Faith may struggle in these dark days to find reason to give thanks, but on further reflection we can of course find many such reasons. As the General Thanksgiving in the BCP has it, we give thanks to God ‘for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.’ We ought to give thanks to God, chiefly on account of the relationship that exists between us and him, between the creatures and the Creator, the redeemed and their Redeemer – a covenant relationship of faithful love.
As Aquinas and others pointed out, it is in our human nature to tend towards what is good, and our acts and attitude of thanksgiving are the natural out-workings of this instinct. Therefore the practice of thanksgiving is an aid to Catholics in their articulation and defence of orthodoxy, because in such practice we learn about the God who is truly good and also about our dependence as humans upon him. For two further reasons in particular it is important that we keep in mind and cultivate the habit of giving thanks.
Character of human experience
The first reason is evangelistic. The world today is in many ways post-Christian and moreover post-religious: many people seem to live quite happily without any religious dimension to their lives or their understanding of the world. I believe we thus have to begin by looking at the meaning and character of genuine human experience.
As that sounds rather technical, let me press on to some practical implications. Where religious faith has an advantage over purely secular and scientific accounts of human experience is that it helps us to understand the common human experience of joy: this is to be distinguished from the experiences of wonder or awe, which science may well explain as arising from feeling the contrast between the human being who is very small and the mountain vista or star-filled night sky which are very large.
A path to the Divine
No, joy is something else, and seems to me to consist in a feeling of pleasure provoked by the simple existence of something outside oneself: I want very little from the object of my joy, but am pleased simply to have encountered it. And as theological people we say of this experience that it is just the sort of thing that ought to prompt us to give thanks. Joy reveals God as Giver, Creation as gift, and it reveals us as we should be – as grateful recipients.
This is a vital insight for a selfish world: all, one hopes, at some point in their lives feel joy, and thus all have this path to the Divine. These experiences are best described using the language religion provides, the language of gratitude. Furthermore, this insight gets around a worldly hostility to religion based upon a distaste for self- and world-denial: secularists do not want to be told what they cannot do – and here is an answer to them, here is something they can do!
It is my contention that the world is far more likely to listen to a Gospel that permits and encourages than to one which forbids and dissuades. It is a life-giving Gospel that helps people realize the true nature of their experiences – that fills out their joy with the addition of thanksgiving.
Our social rituals, even in an age which has thrown off superstition, reveal an instinct towards thanksgiving, which we have a duty to unlock: think for instance of the oft-quoted desire that funerals be ‘a celebration of the life of the deceased’, i.e. that they be an occasion for thanksgiving. And to whom can thanks be given? To him ‘from whom all blessings flow.’
Gifts from God
The second reason for the importance of Christian thanksgiving is pastoral. A wise priest once advised his flock, when tempted to sin, to remember instead to ‘give thanks for the beauty’. As already mentioned, thanksgiving helps to clarify our understanding of the relationship between God and human beings.
When we begin to acknowledge other things in the world, and other people, as gifts from God, we are more likely to refrain from exploiting them as if they somehow belonged first of all to us. Perhaps then we stand a greater chance of combating the temptation to sin, which so often stems from putting too much emphasis on what the world means to us, rather than what it means to God.
It is the vocation of Catholic Christians together to be a sacrificing priesthood [1 Peter 2], and the sacrifice we plead is the Eucharist, which means literally the thanksgiving. In one sense this privilege belongs to those men called to the ministerial priesthood, but Christians must remember that when we come together as the Church to celebrate the Eucharist, we are all in our various ways ministers of the Sacrament, and from that Sacrament must come a sacramental and eucharistic way of living.
By participating in the liturgy of thanksgiving, we learn to give thanks in the rest of our lives too. In these uncertain times, we must remember the certainties of God’s love for us and Christ’s pledge to remain with us forever – and for these things we have great reason to be grateful. ‘O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever.’ ND