Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Is Good For You

(Thanksgiving 2008: This homily was given on November 27, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Sirach 50: 22-24; 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9; Luke 17: 11-19.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thanksgiving 2008]

My message this morning is very simple: Thanksgiving is good for you.

Here I’m talking specifically about the activity, not the holiday (although the holiday we’re celebrating is also a wonderful thing: a great opportunity to get together with family and friends, to watch some football, to eat ‘a little bit’, and maybe even to take a mid-afternoon snooze, if you don’t have to do the dishes!).

But the holiday is ultimately about saying thank you to God for the many blessings he has given to us. This, of course, is an activity that we should engage in every single day, not just once a year on the last Thursday of November.

We should do it, first of all, as a matter of pure justice: “It is right to give him thanks and praise.”

Where have you heard those words before?

God is the one “from whom all good things come” (as it says in the third Eucharistic Prayer); therefore he deserves to be thanked.

In fact, to fail to thank the Lord is actually a sin—a sin against justice.

And when we do say thank you to God, our gratitude should not be superficial! In other words, we shouldn’t say thank you only for our material blessings; we shouldn’t say thank you only for our material blessings and for the people in our lives. When we say thank you to God, it should be for all the natural AND supernatural blessings he has given—and is continually giving—to us. These supernatural blessings include the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity; they include the other gifts of the Holy Spirit; and they include the sacraments.

Did you notice that our first two readings today cover both types of blessings? In our first reading from Sirach 50, God’s natural blessings are focused on. It says there, “And now, bless the God of all, who has done wondrous things on earth; Who fosters people’s growth from their mother’s womb, and fashions them according to his will.”

And then, in this text from 1 Corinthians 1, St. Paul focuses on God’s supernatural gifts to us. He says, “I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, that in him you were enriched in every way . . . so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.”

But our God is a very generous Lord. Yes, we are to give him thanks because it’s right, because it’s just, because we should! But whenever we do that—whenever we give to God the thanks that he so rightly deserves—he responds by giving back to us.

That’s why I began my homily with the words, “Thanksgiving is good for you.” And not surprisingly, it’s good for you on the natural level and the supernatural level. Supernaturally it’s good for you for the simple reason that love tends to increase with thanksgiving. One of the reasons, for example, that people love their parents so much is because their parents have given them a lot, and they’re deeply grateful to them.

So growing in gratitude to God is actually an indirect way of growing in faithfulness to the first and greatest commandment: the commandment to LOVE God with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength!

But even on a purely natural level, thanksgiving has many benefits—and there’s a growing body of psychological evidence to support this fact. Last year, for example, a few days after Thanksgiving, an article appeared on the religion page of the Providence Journal, entitled, “The Benefits of Gratitude.” The article made reference to some recent “thanksgiving” research that’s been done by two college professors, Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California, and Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami.

One experiment the professors did was very interesting. They had a group of adults keep “gratitude journals” for a period of time (in these journals, they would write down the many things they were grateful for), and they compared the attitudes and habits of these men and women with the attitudes and habits of two other groups of adults who didn’t spend any special time giving thanks. In one of his books, Fr. Stephen Rossetti summarizes the results of this experiment as follows:

“Physically, the gratitude group exercised more, had fewer physical symptoms, and slept better. Psychologically, they reported higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination and energy. They experienced less depression and stress as well as high levels of optimism and life satisfaction, without denying the negative aspects of their lives. Spiritually, they were more likely to help others, they were less envious of others, less materialistic, more generous, and more likely to attend religious services and engage in religious activities.” (from “The Joy of Priesthood,” pages 156-157)

So here’s an idea: Why not start a “gratitude journal” yourself—or at least make the resolution to engage in a personal weekly “gratitude session,” where you stop for 10 or 15 minutes and reflect on all the natural and supernatural blessings in your life? You could make it a part of your personal prayer time one day of the week—or every day of the week.

Remember, thanksgiving is good for you—but it’s only good for you if you actually stop and give thanks!