Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington
As the year begins to wind down, it’s only natural to look back and reflect on all the memorable moments, both the highs and lows of the last twelve months: births, new friendships, personal achievements, health matters, family gatherings, financial windfalls/setbacks, deaths, community events, natural disasters, etc. But above all, it’s a time for giving thanks.
How quickly our modern world races from Halloween to Christmas! As a result, Thanksgiving has become little more than a brief respite from the mad dash to the big end-of-year holidays. Perhaps it’s because the merchandisers haven’t yet figured out how to market it for more than a day or two. Or maybe the fact that it’s usually considered a low-key, family affair has something to do with it. Now, think about how long we make merry for Halloween. When I was a child it was one day, really just one night, and that was it, but these days it’s practically a whole month of parties and hype, and then on Nov. 1 the big advertising push for Christmas begins.
Even though our culture downplays Thanksgiving, we shouldn’t let that derail our celebration of this important holiday. So, what are we truly grateful for? First and foremost, we should give thanks to God, the One who, according to St. Paul, knew us and loved us and chose us to be His adopted sons and daughters from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4-5). That means we are adopted members of the family of God! That awe-inspiring statement should cause jaws to drop. I experience a sense of wonder every time I read those verses.
But let’s not forget all the “gifts” we receive every day of our lives, those daily endowments we often take for granted, such as each new day, the sunshine, the rain, water to drink, food to eat. Every breath we take is worth more than silver and gold. Also the treasure of family, friends and health, as well as the freedoms we enjoy in this country, especially our freedom to worship as we please. The list goes on and on. Life itself is a gift.
Did you ever try to recall all your blessings beginning as far back as you can remember? Did you ever attempt to count them? If you’ve ever tried this, you know it’s an impossible task because, since God is infinite, so are His favors; they just keep on coming. I’m reminded of that marvelous story called The Book of Sand, by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. No matter how many pages the main character flipped over, he never got any nearer to the end of the book. Such is God’s love for us – infinite and unending.
So one of the ways we can respond to these heavenly favors is with prayer, specifically ones of thanksgiving. In the spirit of “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17) we pray at mealtimes, whether at home or elsewhere. Consider the Norman Rockwell painting “Saying Grace,” which appeared on the cover of the Nov. 24, 1951 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. It shows a young boy and an older woman, perhaps his grandmother, seated at a table in a restaurant. As they bow their heads to ask God to bless the food, the other diners look on, as if they were witnessing something odd or out of the ordinary. If prayer is viewed as an oddity, what does that say about our culture? Is gratitude becoming a lost virtue? Maybe it has already disappeared from sight in some areas of the country.
The act of expressing gratitude, implies the person doing the thanking, the thing he is grateful for and the one he acknowledges for this favor (“Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts”). Giving thanks fulfills a psychological, as well as spiritual need, and completes the circle by joining gift, giver and recipient. All humans have an innate desire to participate in this circle of giving and receiving and expressing appreciation for the gift as well as the giver. It’s part of what it means to be human. No one is sufficient unto himself.
Fr. Romano Guardini calls gratitude a basis for community. We thank our parents for raising us and our teachers for educating us. Also, we give recognition to those who help us when we need assistance and those who give us presents. Theoretically, it’s a concept that encompasses the whole world because everyone has someone to appreciate for something.
This season let’s all give thanks to the ultimate source from whom all good things come and also to those who in some way have enriched our lives.
Gracious God, may we be truly grateful not just this time of year but all year long.
(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of Oxford St. John Parish.)