Gratitude is easy to praise, hard to practice. I’m not talking about the promiscuous thank- you-ing we do now – mostly, I think, in imitation of sales people. Even the priests at St. Patrick’s in Washington, where I go during the week, thank the congregation at the end of Mass for coming, as if we were doing them or God some favor. This is gratitude-lite run amok. But there’s a gratitude that goes much deeper and farther.
Gratitude is easy when someone is doing something good for us, or when things are going “swimmingly,” as Bertie sometimes puts it to Jeeves. But after the immediate moment or when we haven’t seen someone for a while, the old Jewish joke comes into full force: “Yeah, great, but what have you done for me lately?”
A young theologian I know once cracked, hearing the casual way people talk about being “grateful” to God, that he more often found in himself a deep resentment that the universe didn’t automatically bend to his every whim. He wasn’t recommending this attitude, of course, just pointing out that, as a fallen soul, he finds a lot inside himself that is candidly not grateful to God – for the world and even the promise of eternal life. Sometimes, thanks to God come spontaneously. Usually, it takes hard work to get to the point where we can truly say thank you to God and to others.
Certain cultures. I’m told, don’t even have words for thank you. Japan didn’t until the Portuguese explorers and missionaries landed there. Somehow formal gratitude then began to be put into words and the Portuguese obrigado (“obliged”) morphed into the now-familiar Japanese expression arrigato. It would be interesting to delve deeper into this. Japanese doubtless expressed gratitude previously, since as human beings they certainly felt it, at least towards other human beings. But how and why no direct way to say it?
As Americans, we always begin Thanksgiving Day at an advantage in the gratitude department. How can you not be grateful to live in this country? I know, I know. I dislike plenty about it, too, but we still enjoy a life of abundance and liberty as few human beings in history. Even our poor. The iPod of a ghetto dweller probably contains more – and more varied – music than kings and queens had at their disposal in the past. I wish it were Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or even Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. (It’s probably more often Lady Gaga, Lil Wayne, other rappers – whom our young president claims to have in his iPod.) But the right education – which would have to come from outside state schools – could bring much to life. And that’s just for music – and for starters.
Giving thanks: A Mass in St. Augustine, 1565
Speaking of the president, I noted his Thanksgiving remarks (I’m following from Rome and may have this slightly wrong) seem to have ditched the classic holiday gratitude to God for our good fortunes as a nation. Instead, he wandered off into some rhetorical thicket from which he emerged in the general direction of a few politically correct remarks praising multiculturalism – which is to say, thanking favored ethnic groups for their contributions to American society – and presumably to future election campaigns.
The real multiculturalism at Thanksgiving was actually quite different and required no government sponsorship. People of various kinds came and prospered using new resources. Turkeys were discovered here. Ever wonder why they’re called turkeys? It’s because people back in Europe knew they came from elsewhere and, wrongly, guessed the Eastern Mediterranean. The French even went further afield: dinde or dindon clearly indicate the bird was regarded as Indian. Corn, known variously in European languages as mais (Mayan) or granturco (Turkish grain), shows similar geographical groping. Europeans still generally do not eat corn, thinking it’s more animal fodder than an American delicacy.
And then there are potatoes, unknown to Europe until the Age of Exploration; hundreds of Latin American varieties are still all but unknown. Again, that’s just the food. Where would we be today without it?
In the United States, we wrap this culinary history in a myth about the White Puritan grateful to the Red Indian. It’s a good yarn for purposes of national solidarity, but Christianity is the one element in the foundational mix that we will NOT hear much about in the celebration, except as a tool of conquest. In the West, we’ve carried our self- contempt so far that we also insult the warriors and hunters among the native Americans by trying to make them appear followers of Gandhi’s non-violence before the fact. In an attack on ourselves, we’ve distorted our history and theirs. How many textbooks have appeared now in which the Indians are dancers with wolves and the Pilgrims were merely “people who go on long voyages”?
But let’s lay that aside today and celebrate all that there is to celebrate: a great history of a great nation, imperfect as all human things are, but worthy of our gratitude and love. We’ve been given much and have much to be grateful for. One serious way to express gratitude is to make as good use as possible of what we have received. And we can only do that when, like all the key figures in early American history, we turn to THE source of all good. When we understand that we were not the ultimate cause of our blessings in the past or the present, and will not be in the future – even in the fiction of multicultural service to one another – we can show gratitude by working calmly and vigorously in the sure hope that He who blessed us in the past will never fail to do so in the future – in his own wonderful, unpredictable wisdom.
HAPPY THANKSGIVING from The Catholic Thing!