This year, Thanksgiving week starts right after the formal conclusion of the Extraordinary Year of Mercy. How do we incorporate what we have gained from the prayers, talks, readings and reflections that most of us took part in during the year to shape the way we think about and celebrate Thanksgiving?
So much of our Thanksgiving pivots around what fills us with satisfaction and a sense of sufficiency. Like most people, my gratitude is tightly wrapped around all the good things or blessings in my life.
Elements of this long litany would include my loving husband and sons, the good health of my immediate family, success in our various engagements, fun and loyal friends and stability that insulates us from the economic travails that many others face. It is only natural and appropriate to give thanks for all the things that go well in our lives, may these be work, health, finance or relationships.
Yet, the Year of Mercy called us also to be mindful of those things that don’t go so well in our lives. We all, in different ways and to different degrees, wander away from the kingdom like the prodigal son who departed to the far country, straying from the family of God, misspending our endowments, abandoning virtuous habits and indulging in empty pleasures.
The Year of Mercy shone a light on God’s love that far exceeds our flaws and willfulness: He is as persistent as the shepherd searching for his lost sheep and the woman searching for her lost coin and, like the father of the prodigal son, always on the lookout for our return.
Yet what brings us to the doorstep of God and the threshold of mercy?
Everything that causes us to question our self-sufficiency, control and unexamined satisfaction with the way we handle relationships or form judgment. It is everything that humbles us, turns our hearts to God with an apology and makes clear our dependence on God.
It is exactly this dependence that helps us recognize the gift we are receiving. It is unlikely for those who have never experienced the excruciating pain of plantar fasciitis to appreciate the benefits of orthotics, or those who have 20/20 vision to plant reading glasses everywhere.
In a much bigger way, if we are not in touch with our own flaws, limitations and mistakes, we cannot really grasp the magnitude of God’s love and what a treasure it is. God’s generosity is more than what we can ever expect or think we deserve: God raises us to be heirs when we, like the prodigal son, would settle for being servants.
For me, one change this Thanksgiving will lie in what I give thanks for. Of course, we should thank God for our good fortunes, overflowing bounty, successes and “A’s.” But these pale in comparison to other gifts, such as second and unlimited chances, tenderness in judgment and grace that heals souls.
I am not proud of my impatience, harsh words, snap judgments, vanity, stinginess, inattention to what is deserving of attention and holding back on God. But I am unspeakably grateful when these faults turn me to God who assures all who are sincerely repentant that being “kinder, more loving, more generous” are definitely possible in all of our futures.
For Catholics, perhaps an additional practice to the celebration of Thanksgiving, in the context of mercy, would be a trip to the confessional.
Let us give thanks to God not just for things and fortune, but for mercy and grace.
Carolyn Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.