“[I]t all brings me to thanksgiving, the third thing to include in prayer. When I think of all I have to be thankful for I wonder that You don’t just kill me now because You’ve done so much for me already & I haven’t been particularly grateful.” (Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal)
She wrote that somewhere around 1946 when she was just 21 or 22 years old. Flannery’s Prayer Journal, which was never intended for publication and which I finally read only with great trepidation and shyness, has so much to say about thanksgiving, and grace, and vocation.
In the journal she is continually begging for the grace to be a writer. She is sure, at this early stage in her life, that this is her vocation – that this will be her way of giving herself to God.
Her cause for canonization should have been underway for years, in my opinion, but as far as I am aware it is not.
I’m sure, if she heard me say that, she would send me some incendiary remark in a wryly composed letter with lots of “innocent spellings”.
She continues, “My thanksgiving is never in the form of self-sacrifice — a few memorized prayers babbled once over lightly.”
Thanksgiving as self-sacrifice. Like the Eucharist.
They say the saints are more keenly aware than the rest of us of sin.
What’s so interesting, reading this journal, is looking at it with the perspective of the years of suffering Flannery was about to endure. She did not know, at this time, that she would contract the disease that killed her father and eventually die from it at only age 39.
And yet, when you read some of the prayers, it’s almost like God answered them by sending her lupus. And that she knew, even in her early twenties, that the life of holiness she so desired was only possible via suffering. And that her longing to be a good writer would never really have been fulfilled had she not suffered.
G. K. Chesterton also has some beautiful things to say about Thanksgiving. I saw this on the IgnatiusInsight page a couple of days ago, and immediately I thought how Flannery-O’Connor-like he sounds here:
A turkey is more occult and awful than all the angels and archangels. In so far as God has partly revealed to us an angelic world, he has partly told us what an angel means. But God has never told us what a turkey means. And if you go and stare at a live turkey for an hour or two, you will find by the end of it that the enigma has rather increased than diminished.
Flannery has similar things to say about peacocks.
The beautiful thing about giving thanks for things is that you really only begin to understand them when you notice how grateful you are for them. Like the turkey. You could pass by a turkey farm, but if you stopped, got out of your car, and gazed at a turkey like Chesterton suggests, the beauty and absurdity of this strange-looking animal might start to dawn on you. The longer you looked, the more mysterious this bird would seem. The fact that it has become the traditional sacrificial lamb of our yearly American holiday would only increase this sense of strangeness. And if you looked long enough, you would finally forget about yourself and you would just be totally given to the being in front of you.
The turkey’s goodness is very much tied to its death and consumption by us. It’s very humbling, because of course we do not deserve it.
Chesterton also says,
I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.
I think that what Flannery and Chesterton are getting at is that the gesture of gratitude and thanks is actually the truest response toward life. No matter how little we may initially feel we have to be thankful for, and no matter how irritating cliches about ‘be thankful for what you have’ and ‘you don’t know what you have until it’s gone’ can be, if you stop and seriously look around you, at the couch you are sitting on, or the hum of the heater in your house, or the cup of coffee by your elbow, you may begin to see it.
It is an act of sacrifice to give thanks, because you have to give up your sense of discontent, your sense of wanting other things, of wanting some other life or some other place, and ultimately you have to give up even your sense of yourself. When you are really thankful, you are not thinking about yourself at all anymore, but the goodness of being.
Even babbled thanksgiving “once over lightly” is better than none at all, and I am going to really give it a try this year.