By the Rev. Donald Schell
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days of the year. Our San Francisco hilltop is untypically quiet. Guests may sleep in, but my wife and I begin cooking early and we enjoy sharing the work, as much a part of the day as the feast that will follow. Time seems to slow. Or is it expanding? Simple tasks like peeling roasted chestnuts for stuffing or chopping onions (with the inevitable tears) take our whole attention. A few at a time, family and guests appear, some coming early to complete preparations of a salad, vegetable or dessert in our kitchen. The old silver candlesticks and cranberry sauce dish are all shined up. We set every place at the table (and sometimes an extra table too) with good China, crystal, candles, flowers, or a centerpiece someone has made as their ofrenda.
More often than not Thanksgiving dawns cold and clear. Late autumn light caresses our cooking and feasting. After “dinner” at our special Thanksgiving mid-afternoon hour, some will stretch out for a nap and others go for a walk and conversation. The house has been alive in a festival way, but now indoors is quiet in this pause. Outdoors, we’ll see more people strolling than usual. Our walk will let us glimpse near empty freeways down the hill from us, and to the east a handful of sailboats out on the San Francisco Bay. Then we reconvene for pumpkin and apple pies, homemade and delicious.
We gather extended family from a 60-mile or so radius, and we usually invite a couple of close friends, so it’s easy for us to seat 20 in an extended, intergenerational family gathering. I enjoy it that our Thanksgiving dinner is traditional in many ways, but I’m grateful for other people making other kinds of celebration. I’m glad some friends make deliberately non-traditional Thanksgiving gatherings, vegetarian and vegan Thanksgivings, Thanksgiving dinners out, and humanely-raised turkey Thanksgivings. Preachers can protest than giving thanks once a year is a wrongheaded token, but it feels powerful to me that it’s something happening across the country in so many different settings. And it’s pleasingly rich in human, handmade and personally imagined quality, and remarkably untouched by consumerism.
Rather than protest, I want to give thanks for its power as a reminder, and then go on to wonder about gratitude, its power and how we find it.
In his wonderful little book, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness, Br. David Steindl-Rast wrote, “Plato recognized surprise as the beginning of philosophy. It is also the beginning of gratefulness. A close brush with death can trigger that surprise. For me, that came early in life. Growing up in Nazi-occupied Austria, I knew air raids from daily experience. And an air raid can be an eye-opener. One time, I remember, the bombs started falling as soon as the warning sirens went off. I was on the street. Unable to find an air raid shelter quickly, I rushed into a church only a few steps away. To shield myself from shattered glass and falling debris, I crawled under a pew and hid my face in my hands. But as bombs exploded outside and the ground shook under me, I felt sure that the vaulted ceiling would cave in any moment and bury me alive. Well, my time had not yet come. A steady tone of the siren announced that the danger was over. And there I was, stretching my back, dusting off my clothes and stepping out into a glorious May morning. I was alive. Surprise! The buildings I had seen less than hour ago were now smoking mounds of rubble. But that there was anything at all struck me as an overwhelming surprise. My eyes fell on a few square feet of lawn in the midst of all this destruction. It was as if a friend had offered me an emerald in the hollow of his hand. Never before or after have I seen grass so surprisingly green. Surprise is no more than a beginning of that fullness we call gratefulness. But a beginning it is.”
Br. David goes on to explore how a willingness to notice surprise may be the first step to living a fully, grateful life.
What I’m noticing this Thanksgiving is how gratefulness (gratitude, thanksgiving) shapes memory. Just how we hold our memory of the distant and immediate past predisposes us toward or away from hope and the risk of doing something new.
With noticing what we’re experiencing, making space for surprise and finding unexpected and unforced gratitude, what we allow ourselves to see and feel and sense encourages a contemplative appreciation of what we have experienced and of what’s before us. It reminds me how the management and problem-solving approach called “Appreciative Inquiry,” tasks us to see and remember what’s going right to lay our foundation for problem-solving and change.
As contemplative practice, it begins in “just noticing” (including noticing our rush to judgment, to regret, to worry). We begin by noticing what is, what’s happening around us. Br. David’s May morning was a surprise and a joy after the air raid. Surprise freed him from the fear, loss and anger that could have defined those first moments surveying how much had been destroyed.
I think 9/11 made it hard for many among us to hope. I hear that fear of hope in the cynicism of highly secularized young people, and I hear it from retired clergy colleagues and others in a generation that once sang “we all want to change the world.” The two different age groups express it quite differently, but both seem to be responding to uncertainty and a sense that loss is more trustworthy than imagination or hope. Without openness to surprise, without thanksgiving, we’re afraid to hope.
Christmas and Easter both seem to present Big Reasons to Hope, and the “because…” of both of them can push us into exhortations to gratitude and hope. “You should feel…” “We ought to be thankful…”
I’ve written elsewhere about remembering the Thanksgiving Day after John Kennedy’s assassination. I was 15. It was the first time I remember asking myself, “how can we give thanks when…,” but now, 50 years later, I imagine we all can list those times we’ve asked that question. It’s a moment when I wonder (surprise?) at St. Paul inviting us to “give thanks in all things.”
I don’t think exhorting, scolding, commanding, or “shoulding” people to give thanks gets to the surprise that Br. David is talking about. And the “ought to be thankfuls” inevitably feel like a consolation prize, a way to cover mourning with pretending. The thankfulness that nurtures hope and the readiness to take wholehearted risks comes more spontaneously. It’s graceful (so maybe from God or the Spirit), but also natural, not forced. And it begins in noticing and in allowing ourselves to be surprised.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is Creative Director of All Saints Company, working for community development in congregational life focusing on sharing leadership, welcoming creativity and building community through music. He wrote My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago.