Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday: this week families and friends across the country will gather together to celebrate the occasion by converging upon a single crowded household. Tables will be elegantly set and the turkeys will be roasted (and more than a few burnt). It offers all the things that make holidays enjoyable (time away from work, good food, and good company) with fewer of the things that make other holidays so stressful (like Christmas gift shopping).
Still, there are some less savory aspects about the way we observe Thanksgiving. It is at the very least ironic and perhaps even spiritually counterproductive that, on a day purportedly devoted to expressing gratitude for all that we have been given, for many of us our attention is devoted to primarily to the anticipation of the Thanksgiving meal and to feeding our appetites for watching NFL games and shopping for Black Friday bargains, which have become our other essential rituals of the day.
Now there is nothing inherently wrong with shopping or watching a football game. Nor is it necessarily a mark of moral depravity to indulge in the occasional feast. To the contrary, Scripture repeatedly likens God’s reign to a great banquet and a wedding feast. The problem is that modern mass marketing and consumer culture do more to multiply people’s desires than they do to foster gratitude. In truth, if we examine the matter more closely, we see that the problem runs deeper: the regrettable aspects of our contemporary Thanksgiving celebrations are only the latest manifestations of that perennial struggle within the human heart, the struggle between worldly concern and transcendent calling.
Always Hungry, Always Searching
The primary source of tension derives from our creaturely constitution. We human beings are hardwired to persistently seek the satisfaction of our needs. We hunger when our bodies need nourishment, thirst when they need hydration, and lust because it is necessary for the propagation of our species. These desires are strong, and they are strong for a reason: if we were to neglect the functions to which these desires drive us, we would not survive. In this sense, these desires serve an important purpose in the world God created, namely, sustaining life. Yet this is not all there is to human life. Although we share these primal desires in common with simpler animals, humans also experience desires that are not strictly necessary for our survival: we desire to be loved, esteemed and to be spiritually fulfilled. Our spiritual yearnings demand satisfaction not merely for us to survive, but to live a truly meaningful life. These transcendent yearnings represent the second source of tension in our lives.
So it is that, on account of both biological and spiritual drives, we are strongly disposed to focus our attention on what we lack. This reality of human existence finds apt expression in the Passenger song “Let Her Go,” which was a mainstay on the radio earlier this year. The refrain of the song reads:
But you only need the light when it's burning low,
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow,
Only know you love her when you let her go,
Only know you've been high when you're feeling low,
Only hate the road when you're missin' home,
Only know you love her when you let her go.
The theme of human desiring and concern has garnered considerable attention not only among artists but also among many notable philosophers and theologians. For example, the great 20th-century philosopher Martin Heidegger describes concern (Sorge in German) as constitutive of our very manner of existence. “Being-in-the-world,” Heidegger writes, “is essentially concern.”
Becoming aware of the way concern constrains our attention and orients our lives is a crucial step on the path to self-knowledge. When we grow in this awareness, it illuminates a myriad of phenomena in our lives: It helps us to understand why that person at work complains about everything. It explains why the first two seasons of “House of Cards,” when the Underwoods were still aspiring to the White House, were more riveting than the third in which they had achieved their aim. It explains how we can turn a holiday founded as an occasion for giving thanks for what we have into a day of desiring and indulging in far more than we need. It helps us to understand (as well as anything can) why human beings, whom God had given everything they needed to be happy, would grasp at the one thing forbidden to them.
Periodically across the centuries, “enlightened” thinkers and religious leaders have decried human desiring as the source of our suffering and called for its eradication, whether by the disciplined use of reason or by ascetic measures. However, all such efforts to eliminate human desire have and always will prove futile. There is simply no end to our desiring in this life. As soon as one concern fades away, another crops up in its place—concern for social acceptance, for good grades, for reciprocation of romantic feelings, for professional status, for an estranged family member, for bills that need to be paid, for the success of a party or fundraiser, for sexual fulfillment, for a child’s well-being, for one’s declining health. Many of us live much of our lives under the illusion that, if we could only obtain this salary level or the affection of that person, we would be content. However, it is an illusion indeed. St. Augustine summed up the matter well in his famous profession, “our hearts are restless until they rest in [God].” In other words, there is no satisfying the human heart this side of heaven.
If we are to find any measure of lasting peace in this lifetime, we have to abandon the fool’s errand of satisfying here and now every desire that sets upon us. This is not to say that we must abandon hope of eventually fulfilling our hearts’ deepest desire. Implied in Augustine’s famous words is the belief that our desires do ultimately find fulfillment in God and that the insatiability of our worldly desires leads us to God. We are never satisfied in this world because we are created for more than this world can give. If this is true, it would be a double folly to attempt to eliminate our desires—in the first case because such efforts are futile and in the second because our desires may actually be leading us to God.
Naming Our Gifts
So if we cannot satisfy all our desires and we cannot eliminate them, how are we to deal with this desiring within us that at once orients us to God and yet threatens to lead us astray? According to the inherited wisdom of the Christian tradition, the most reliable path lies, not in feeding or repressing our desires, but rather in rightly ordering them. In this endeavor gratitude is a powerful agent. Each of us has experienced at some point the power of gratitude to put things back in perspective and to restore our awareness of things we had taken for granted. Who has not felt gratitude for a warm home when returning from the cold, inclement outdoors or for a cool glass of water after an exhausting workout? Our gratitude reaches new heights in those times when we are helpless to obtain what we need. One need only think of a parent whose deathly ill child has received a life-saving organ transplant. In all such cases, the alleviation of a particularly poignant need restores our appreciation for gifts that we tend to overlook on account of their fixity in our lives.
I believe that experiences like these provide us with a clue as to why, throughout the course of salvation history, God has repeatedly encouraged God’s people to form habits and rituals of gratitude. Look at the ancient Israelites. If ever a group of people had reason to be grateful, it was they. Time and again they found themselves on the brink of destruction—as slaves in Egypt, dying of thirst in the desert, hemmed in by enemies in the promised land, carried off into exile—only to be rescued by God in every instance. Their reasons to be grateful were many, and yet over and over their desires for pleasure, glory and security caused them to stray from the one true Source of peace and joy. Therefore, whenever it proved necessary to refocus the Israelites’ desires and renew their fidelity, God persistently reminded them of all the good God had done for them in the past: “Remember these things, O Jacob, And Israel…” (Isa 44:21). Following this cue, the people of Israel marked out special holy days of thanksgiving and incorporated prayers of gratitude and remembrance into their daily routines. To this day these occasions for giving thanks serve as reminders of God’s goodness and opportunities for turning back to God.
Our situation as contemporary Christians is no different… or at least it would be no different were it not for God’s intervention in the person of Jesus Christ. Like the people of Israel, we live in constant threat of destruction—if not the death of the body, then certainly the death of the soul wrought by sin. As was the case with Israel, God has come to our aid time and again, most definitively in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Like the people of Israel, we easily forget what God has done for us whenever a friendship becomes strained or finances get tight. For this reason, we need to be constantly reminded of God’s saving work lest we become consumed by our concerns and desires.
Recognizing this need, before Jesus entered into his Paschal Mystery that would deliver us from the power of sin and death, he gathered his disciples around him and, breaking the bread and sharing the cup, commanded them, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19). Giving them his body and blood in this way, Jesus united his self-donation on the cross to common bread and wine, which symbolize for us life and happiness. In so doing, Jesus provided us with the concrete, sacramental means of centering our lives in gratitude and thanksgiving for the salvation God has achieved for us.
Looking at the Eucharist—a word that means “thanksgiving—in this light helps us to understand why the church has proclaimed it the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Cathechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1324). Because we are neurologically disposed to focus on what we lack and because every day and week brings with it new worries and preoccupations, achieving peace and perspective in our lives requires intentional effort to counter our desires with remembrances of the specific hopes and needs that God has already met. Because our thoughts and feelings are greatly influenced by our habits and physical condition, we need a fixture in our routine to help us remember and dwell in enjoyment of the many blessings in our lives. The Eucharist is this fixture.
Here in the United States we devote one day of the year to giving thanks. That is well and good, but it is far from adequate. Life’s concerns rush in upon us on a daily basis. If we are to keep from being overwhelmed by those concerns, we need to center our lives in gratitude on a weekly if not a daily basis. Countless Christians have discovered for themselves the calming, centering power of the Eucharist. By remembering what God has done for us and joining in Jesus’ sacrifice of thanks, we find a momentary rest for our souls and a means of reordering our desires toward God, their true source and goal.
I offer the above as food for thought as we prepare for the approaching Thanksgiving holiday. On Nov. 26 we do well to gather with family and celebrate life’s blessings with a hearty meal. However, rather than building anticipation for one day of overeating, we would do better to build anticipation for the banquet of love that God has prepared for us in the next life and that we foretaste here and now in the Eucharist. For in this sacramental meal—and even more so in the heavenly feast it symbolizes—we encounter that which alone can satisfy, not our stomachs’, but our hearts’ deepest desire.