Thanksgiving as Mystical Communion

“This is good. This is bad.” In one form or another, we divide the world into light and dark. It might take the form, “I like this. I do not like that.” What we find easy are the things we see as good and the things we like. If a day is filled with such things, we are likely to be happy. If the day is marked by things we do not like, then we are unhappy. We find it easy to be thankful for the good things. Everybody is grateful for things they like. Indeed, it is something of a tautology to be thankful for things we like – even the gentiles do the same.

Of course, our days are not filled with good things that we like. Our days are often a mix – good and bad – liked and unliked. This reality defines the path of modern persons: we seek to maximize the good and minimize the bad. Ronald Reagan, an icon of modern America, liked to quote a song from the 40’s:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative,
No room for Mister In-Between.

This is modernity in its prime. The modern myth is bound up with the “better world,” the notion that through proper management and applications of science and technology (and all of the so-called “sciences”), we can make the world a better place – meaning that we will be able to eliminate the negative and maximize our pleasure. Pleasure is equated with the good, while suffering is seen as inherently bad. Modernity seeks to turn the world into a candy store (without diabetes).

The most bizarre outcomes of modernity’s false philosophy can be seen in today’s campus cults who demand “safe places” – defined as a world without discomfort or contradiction. “You must not say this, think that, wear this, eat that, drink this, and on and on, because these things are bad, because these things create pain (my imagined pain), and you are evil.” It’s a brave new world that is being “bettered,” but I suspect very few will want to live in it.

My continuing critique of modernity has nothing to do with technology, medicine, science, etc. None of those things are “modern” in and of themselves. Modernity is a set of ideas, not a time in history. One of its most subtle bits of propaganda is to pass itself off as a historical period, and, even, as the inevitable outcome of everything that has gone before. To be “unmodern,” is therefore, to be “out-of-date,” “backward,” “Neanderthal,” “positively Medieval,” or some such descriptive. Modernity is propaganda parading as history.

It is also ungrateful.

There is a classic Orthodox prayer set for the morning:

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility.
Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will.

At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things.
Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day,
teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.

Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions.
In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee.

Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.

When I first encountered this prayer, I found it impossible to say it. Instead, its un-prayed presence, for me, constituted wrestling with God.

Is God at work in all things and are all things being brought to a good conclusion? Are the terrible things that happen to me or to another devoid of God or, are they, somehow the work of the Cross within history? This last question proved to be an open door for me. God does not stand outside of history manipulating, controlling one thing or another, aloof and judging. The Cross of Christ is not a single event of three hours duration, a mere payment for sin. The Cross is the revelation of a mystery-at-work that has been hidden from the ages but has always been true. Christ is the “lamb slain from the foundations.”

Christ reveals to us that He not only loves those who suffer, but He becomes those who suffer (Matt. 25:40).1 Christ becomes what we are, uniting us to Himself, that we might become what He is. On the Cross, we see, not only the suffering of God, but the suffering of the whole world, everywhere and through all time.2 Like Joseph the Patriarch, we are able to say of suffering, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” (Gen. 50:20)

With this in mind, we are able to give thanks always and for things, not because we think suffering itself is good, but because the One who alone is good has Himself become our suffering. By the same token, when we ourselves do good to those who are in need, and unite ourselves to them, we also unite ourselves to God whose providence cares for all at all times and all places.3

Thanksgiving, particularly with this understanding in mind, is a continual act of offering and sacrifice, the very heart of a Eucharistic life. “Thine own, of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.”

No doubt, Christians will continue in doing good. However, in spite of every modern mythology, the world will not be a “better” place. Evil things will continue to happen (many of them done in the name of a better world). Modernity, however, cannot bear suffering, which is truly tragic in that suffering is an inevitable part of every life. The modern world’s absence of a meaningful narrative with regard to suffering – other than to eradicate it – perpetuates and cultivates a heart that is frequently unable to be grateful. Of course, if sufficient steps are taken to shield someone from the reality of suffering, a make-believe “better” world can be maintained for a space of time. This, in large part, is the origin of the cult of prosperity (in its many guises).

The Christian heart, on the other hand, is manifest most prominently in the giving of thanks. The central act of worship is itself the giving of thanks (Eucharist is from the Greek for “giving thanks”). In the very first paragraph of St. John Chrysostom’s anaphora, we hear:

For all these things we give thanks to You, and to Your only-begotten Son, and to Your Holy Spirit; for all things of which we know and of which we know not whether manifest or unseen,

The central act of Christian worship gives thanks for all things, to which the people say, “Amen.”

The mystery of our salvation is found within the Cross of Christ, His suffering, death and resurrection. The fullness of that salvation reveals itself to us as we come to know that all things, known and unknown, those we see as good and those we see as bad, have been gathered together by God into Himself. It is there in that union (and there alone) that “all things work together for good.” And there we give thanks.

Footnotes for this article

  1. This particular understanding is emphasized by St. Maximus in his Mystagogy, 24.
  2. Mystagogy, 24, op cit.
  3. This same point is also emphasized by St. Maximus, op cit.

26 comments:

  1. I am Canadian and our Thanksgiving was last month. Nevertheless appreciate what you say here. Something I have been learning over the past few years is to be grateful for things I don’t find pleasant in the moment. It isn’t easy but something I’ve realized as I get older is that I am grateful for nearly everything that has happened to me in my life, regardless of how I felt about it at the time. It all has a part to play in the story and it seems increasingly foolish to wish away any time or experience. Also thank you for your blog; I can’t remember when exactly I started reading it or even why but it has been over a year I think and I look forward to every entry.

  2. Thank you, Father Stephen for taking thanksgiving into the deeper places of Orthodox spirituality at this secular time of Thanksgiving in American observance. I wonder if these, in more stable times seeming obviously separate, might now be drawing closer together rather than further apart. The darkness is hard to dismiss even for the more worldly among us, which might be as providential as was Alyosha’s retreat from the monastery briefly out into the world at large with Rakitin at his side licking his chops at the chance to be present as our hero fell from grace. But he didn’t fall. And for Alyosha the impossible became possible, graspable, radiantly fulfilling — as it hadn’t done for him before.
    Sorry not to say it well – as Dostoievski says, it doesn’t need a miracle to happen, but goodness to appear when we are not looking for it, have even given up looking. As for the thief on the cross — there! Christ himself right next to him!
    Thanks very much for this post.

  3. Thank you for all you do Father. We do appreciate your work. Have a very blessed and Happy Thanksgiving

  4. Father, it would seem that giving thanks for all things as you suggest is a way to fulfill Jesus command to “Be in the world, not of it”. Is that correct?

  5. Thank for Fr. Stephen. I’m trying to sort out what the “holiday season” will be like without Oksana physically present. This article was very helpful.

  6. Thank you for this today, and for that lovely prayer. I have lived long enough to see the tapestry of my life being created from the good, the bad,and even the tragic times I have lived thru. God has a plan, and even the pain has a place in the rich colors of His creation. How sad if in the aspiration to feel only good and pleasure we neglect to experience the joy that comes only after pain is resolved.
    Blessed Thanksgiving Father, to your and yours

  7. Father, I am suffering and ashamed today because yesterday I had an encounter with someone who succeeded in hooking me. I am a catechumen and lack the knowledge to counter arguments that I absolutely know are false, and she is a lawyer, ’nuff said. She personified the stance of what you describe here – the need for “safe spaces”, the avoidance of suffering, the insistence that the world will become “a better place” once we get rid of vigilantes and racism. I knew I should just keep my mouth shut but as I say I got hooked and it was very unpleasant. For years I have been reading and studying (including your writings) and though I still have stumbling blocks I know I’m on the right path, but after an encounter like yesterday’s I am in turmoil. Please, do you have any advice for me? And Happy Thanksgiving.

  8. Essie,
    Sometimes turmoil serves to underline what we do not want. As such, it is a reminder of the peace of Christ. We’re not usually so cheeky as to say to someone, “Thank you for reminding me why I am an Orthodox catechumen…” but that is clearly the case. Tragically, cultures will not erase racism through safe places, etc. Only the change of hearts actually heals such sinful things. Instead of changing hearts, we most often engage in shaming, blaming, scapegoating, etc., in which the result is simply more damaged hearts that will manifest in some other darkened manner.

    As a Christian – I am convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ is sufficient for all things. That gospel is rooted in the fullness of the faith. All political solutions yield the same fruit – man-made attempts at various make-believe utopias, masking injustice and oppression and the sin of our lives. Of course, getting caught up in political causes helps people avoid dealing with their own sin. It’s easier to make loud complaining noises than it is to bear the difficult shame entailed in forgiveness and sacrifice.

    If we would simply follow the commandments of Christ the world would “be better” – but not in the political sense. In the face of Pontius Pilate, when given the chance to speak to the political powers that be, Christ simply offered the gospel. As time goes on, I become yet more convinced of the futility of political beliefs. They are a religious cult of sorts, disguised as “politics,” with the accompanying lie that “because it’s not religion,” we can somehow hold to these political beliefs without compromising our Christian faith.

    Essie, may God preserve you in your faith and protect you for well-meaning souls.

  9. Thank you so much, Father. I will remember this statement as future armor: “thank you for reminding me why I am an Orthodox catechumen.” Blessings to you and your family.

  10. Father, just one quibble: It is not politics that is the fundamental problem but the modern immersion in ideology. Ideology which, as you note, turns into a type of idolatry. The fallen human tendency toward self-worship, particularly, the products of our imagination(as you have mention in other posts) has no internal safeguards against darkness, evil and depravity. The only effective antidote is giving thanks to our Incarnate Lord as I acknowledge my own sins. His mercy heals all as Psalm 50 declares. https://www.saintgeorgekearney.com/psalm_50

    Glory to God for all things.

  11. Michael,
    Re: Your quibble. I do not think I have identified politics as the fundamental problem. However, “politics,” as it exists at present, is completely interwoven in the narrative of modernity and is a chief purveyor and beneficiary of its false messages. The State, from earliest times (including monarchies which have been the dominant form throughout human history), has ever been problematic. In that it wields power and violence, it has the potential for great evil. If it is minded towards justice and goodness, it can, at best, be a benevolent presence. Many of the things that are done by the government are salutary and necessary – particularly those things that seek to serve. The larger political projects, married to the various versions of a “better world,” are, strangely, the most likely to do great harm.

    I write in the critical manner that I included in my comment in response to the mythology of a better world – and all of the nonsense that makes the modern government idolatrous. I don’t think I would rephrase any of it.

  12. Father, not asking you to rephrase anything. It is just in the course of my own battle, I find the word ‘ideology’ more expressive of what I have encountered although most of the time there is little real difference between the two. Forgive me, I was not trying to be argumentative.

  13. Dear Michael,
    It seems to me in the current state of modernity, that one person’s “politics” is “just another person’s ideology”. I don’t think by definition they are the same thing however in this article we are discussing the various facets and ‘covers’ used by the engine modernity. With the divisive talk engaged as politics that pervades this culture, it seems to me that it works to call it politics. No one in such a quagmire is cut any slack.—Of course this is just my perspective, but I think the word politics holds well in this article and discourse.

  14. Whether it is perceived as ideological or perhaps becomes political, the problem is the demand for all to conform, the ambition of an ultimate scale/scope,… modernity, therefore, despite invoking diversity, desires religious fundamentalist monophony. The large/globalist political projects/agendas, (which we here increasingly more of) towards a “better world,” are, as Father noted, the most nefarious in practice.

  15. Dino, There is also a great deal of shaming going on to get people to conform and submit. My dear wife typically ignores most of it and talks to folks as just other people in a warm and often humorous way. Including me all while relying on and praising God.

    In any case, I have been remiss — not publicaly giving thanks to Fr. Stephen and for the community and people here.

  16. Michael,
    indeed, that is even calculated at times, according to behavioural psychologist governmental departments dealing with ‘public opinion shaping’. Eliminates the need for police-ing who conforms and who doesn’t to a degree.

  17. Michael,
    I wouldn’t want to label him as such. “Judas” is sort of like dropping “Hitler” in an argument. 🙂

    It’s important, I think, to understand that what can rightly be described as “modernity” is simply a development of a particular strain derived from Protestant Christian thought. I think it could not have developed in China or India, for example. It would not have developed in an Orthodox country, and was slower to be adopted in Catholic countries. However, in England (first and foremost) and then in parts of Germany, it caught on like wildfire – and in the American experiment, it was like a wildfire fed by creosote bushes.

    It’s important to think of it in these terms, I think, because its important to see why its ideas seem both familiar, and, even “correct” to a certain extent. Modernity is inherently “Christian” – though Christian in the same way that various Christian heresies are Christian.

    People at all times have sought to control the outcome of history. Judas certainly belongs to that category. That can be as relatively benign as a controlling boss or spouse. Its bothersome, but doesn’t destroy civilization. It becomes problematic when, as a philosophy of history, it becomes the guiding thought of our public life – how to build a better world.

    Of course, who doesn’t want the world to be a better place? Take a simple thing like justice. Who doesn’t want the world to be more just? But modernity will find some large scheme by which it imagines that its legislations and management rules will produce justice – without ever understanding that until and unless actual human beings become just, there will be no real justice.

    On the laws governing the trial of murder, as an example. Even in the worst days of the Jim Crow South, the laws for the prosecution of murder would have been adequate for justice. But if, in a trial, 12 men are seated as a jury but are themselves unjust men, then they will likely reach an unjust decision.

    If we start asking questions about how we nurture virtue in a culture – then we have moved past the philosophy of modernity and returned to a more classical model. It is such reasoning that is largely absent from our modern conversation.

    Here is St. James’ teaching that touches on this:

    “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask.” (James 4:1–2)

    The conflicts of the past few years have not revealed that we are a bad society (structural, etc.). I think that it has revealed that we are a society of unjust people. And we have directed our attention away from ourselves, blaming others, instead of repenting and recognizing that we ourselves are the problem. Modernity has essentially come to believe that economic growth can fix or eliminate all troubles.

    Just some thoughts.

  18. Father, thank you. I wee your point on Judas specifically. The reason I brought him up is as I contemplate the misogyny of the modern in myself, I trace it back to a subtle, or not so subtle, movement away from acknowledging the Incarnate Lord (fully man and fully God), The Cross, the grave, The Glorious Ressurection AND exalting my sinful and human will above all else. Along with that comes the temptation to think I can manage and control anything I want, including history— and I am RIGHT!

    There seems to be an historical, macro version as well as the personal version in my own heart. Both seem to focus on power and control which has a tendency to wipe out virtue.

    For me to recover virtue seems to require asceticism: repentance, fasting and service to others. God, in His mercy is providing me with ample opportunities for each.

  19. Michael,
    What you describe in your efforts is what Christ has set for us. It seems to me that part of our faith in Christ is to believe that His Kingdom is something He is doing – first and foremost within us. Sadly, modernity presumes that the Kingdom is a name for a Christian version of the modern project, something that, once we’ve declared what it’s blueprint is to be, we then set about trying to accomplish through efforts that are, in fact, just as secular as anyone else’s modern project.

    The Church (as in our local parishes) is the primary means given to us by Christ. The “conversion” of the political order during Constantine’s time did nothing to further the Kingdom of God, nor would the “conversion” of our present political powers. Either we become holy or the Kingdom lies elsewhere. We can never institute the Kingdom as a moral project. It is never anything other than the supernatural life in Christ, manifest in holy lives and the transfiguration of creation itself.

    It is deeply tragic, in my mind, that such a vision is declared to be “Quietism” by some. God give us all grace to pursue the life of virtue.

  20. I started saying The Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina a few years back. Including it into my daily prayers was life changing. I have found my internal prayer life to yield more fruit than anything that comes out of my mouth. May God continue to grant mercy & forgiveness in my life.

  21. Father,
    I have a lack of interest in but sometimes annoyed by the current trends to delve into ‘apocalyptic’ thinking (which often describes itself as ‘Christian’ politics). It seems to express the desire to use the Bible as a form of propaganda, as “God-given” prophecy for the express purpose to feed and elevate the modern project. This is the sort of temptation that was used against Christ in the desert.

    I believe Fr Hopko’s 55 maximums a helpful, healthy reminder to let go of such distractions.

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