A Thanksgiving Note from Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus, Grace Cathedral
G.K. Chesterton wrote somewhere that, as far as his religion was concerned, he was held together by “the thin thread of thanks.” That phrase came to me as we approach our annual celebration of Thanksgiving. Chesterton wrote,
“I clung to religion, by one thin thread of thanks… At the back of our brains… 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 might suddenly understand that he was alive, and be happy.”
Not a bad way to approach our annual festival, not least given the upheavals and violence in the world and the craziness of our political rhetoric. Thanksgiving is a good celebration bringing people and families together, but I wonder if that thread of thanks has worn too thin?
I have affectionate memories of Harvest Festivals in my native England. I remember one particular celebration in Norfolk over forty years ago. We were staying with a priest who had ten little village churches to look after — all of them had to have a separate Harvest Festival service of their very own. (They could get together for Christmas and Easter but not for the Harvest Festival!) In each little church, there were mounds of local produce and canned goods from all over the world, piled up around the altar. There was a lot to be thankful for. Giving thanks seems to be built into being a human being — to be thankful for the bounty of nature and the gift of life. It runs deep, this longing for connection.
There’s a saying of the Kalahari Bushmen of this cosmic longing — “to walk again with the moon and the stars.” At its deepest, thanksgiving has to do with the celebration of connection and connectedness. That’s why it’s very hard on those of us who are disconnected to be thankful. A heart that cannot give thanks is a sorry and sad business. Are we — as a nation — losing our capacity for saying thank you? Maybe we have to do some repair work of reconnection before we can give proper thanks? Our trouble begins, I think, with contempt for the world. This assertion may come as a bit of a surprise because most of us think that we love the world — but look at the way we treat it. Look at the way we treat each other.
Wendell Berry writes, “I begin… with the assumption that perhaps the great disaster of human history is the one that happened to or within religion: that is, the… division between the holy and the world… Those who were disposed to exploit it were thus free to do so.” We think the world is there to be used rather than enjoyed (there’s a crucial difference — it becomes clearer when you apply these two words to your treatment of people). “The contempt for the world or the hatred of it, which is exemplified both by the wish to exploit it for the sake of cash and the willingness to despise it for the sake of ‘salvation,’ has reached a disturbing climax in our own time.”
We need to recover this “thin thread of thanks” if we are to survive and flourish. For Chesterton, the mystical is normal. To have a mystical sense is to have an open grateful heart for the sheer gift of life. While we need to be unsentimental and realistic, the bottom line is that pessimism is pathological. Cynicism is a sickness of soul. In giving of thanks the heart is healed of its sickness. And that is true not only for individuals, but for communities and even for nations. So this Thanksgiving, let’s dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder. When and if we find it, we should be prepared for upheaval. I find that the giving of thanks is dangerous because uncomfortable challenges begin to invade my private world when I am pressured to end my isolation. The sense of the giftedness of things is prior to the sense of our being actors and agents in our world. Acts of thanksgiving for the sheer giftedness of things undermine my sense of being in charge of my life. We want to own things. We do not like to hold things in trust. We would rather live in a consumer society than in a community, which sees life as a gift. When we think we own things, we don’t owe anyone thanks. We choose hostility over hospitality.
If we could accept ourselves as dependent and contingent, we might be able to experience something of the freedom of a St. Augustine who knew himself first and foremost to be a gift: “God’s first gift to me was my own fragile self.” When we understand that about ourselves, our response will be one long act of thanksgiving. That thin thread is amazingly resilient and will not only bear us forward but bring us joy.
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.