We don’t usually think of Thanksgiving and discipline at the same time. But let’s talk about two disciplines that enhance our celebration of Thanksgiving.
We hear several key episodes from the Book of Daniel this week. The first tells of how he and other young men were taken to the court of the Babylonian king to be trained for the king’s service. They were offered food and wine from the king’s table, which would have been the best of quality, but still in violation of their obedience to God’s law. So Daniel and his fellow Israelites asked for water and vegetables instead. At the end of ten days, “they looked healthier and better fed than any of the young men who ate from the royal table.” Then, after three years of training, when they were asked any question that required wisdom or prudence, the king “found them ten times better” than anyone else in the kingdom.
Daniel observed a simple physical discipline, and it bore tremendous spiritual fruit. Since God made us body and soul, it makes sense: the discipline of the body disposes the soul to the reception of grace.
Sometimes we feast, too — as many of us will this week! But here’s the trick: if we feast in gluttony, it will have a negative effect on the soul’s disposition to grace. If, however, we feast in gratitude, that will dispose the soul positively toward the reception of grace.
That’s the first Thanksgiving discipline I’d like to propose: not that we don’t feast, but that we feast in gratitude rather than gluttony. If we do, the actions of the body will support the soul’s openness to God.
Second, the Responsorial Psalm this week isn’t a Psalm! Rather, it’s taken from Daniel 3, the prayer to God from the fiery furnace. It’s a hymn of blessing, calling on all creation to bless the Lord. And there’s a beautiful structure to it. Beginning at God’s throne, it follows a descending pattern: angels, the heavens, sun and moon, shower and dew, wind and rain, and so on, until it reaches the solid ground of the earth. Then, from the earth, it follows an ascending pattern: inanimate things, water creatures, ground creatures, human beings, Israel, priests of Israel, holy men and women, and so on, rising back up in praise to God. There’s a cosmic order to the hymn: everything — each in its proper place — is called on to bless the Lord.
If we were to construct a similar hymn of thanksgiving what would its order be?
When we sit down to name the things we’re thankful for, it usually starts out as a bit of a jumble. But if we return and name those things every day the list begins to organize itself. We might begin with the most important things and go on to less important things. Or we might begin with little things and gather momentum, leading up to the big things. One thing is sure, though: the list won’t get organized unless we return to it over and over again.
That leads to the second Thanksgiving discipline I want to suggest. The four days of Thanksgiving are often given over to shopping. Let me suggest that we spend a little time and energy each day putting together a hymn of gratitude. Sit for a few minutes each day. Name the things you’re grateful for. As each day progresses, let the list organize itself. By the end of four days, we’ll each have our own cosmic hymn of gratitude. Then on the fourth day we can bring it to Mass and “give thanks” — which is what Eucharist means in Greek! — with a new spiritual depth.