This Thursday we will be celebrating our national observance of Thanksgiving. As I grew older, it began to seem odd to me that I, with my Italian mother and living in Jewish neighborhood, should have to forego lasagna, kalamata olives or shaved peccorino romano on a holiday to chew on such exotic foods as dried-out turkey, bitter cranberry sauce and sickeningly sweet potatoes. At least the roast turkey was stuffed with good sausage meat and not pallid bread stuffing! My mom’s family arrived here in the course of World War I and our home, like our parish church, was festooned with religious art. What did we have in common with seventeenth century Puritans and their stark meeting houses, dour manners and log cabins? Why, to speak to their descendants, you’d never believe that they were ever immigrants, something we were acutely aware of being.
Of course, you don’t have to be a Puritan to give thanks. I was raised with quotes from my great grandmother, who died before I was born, a woman who never learned English but who refused to pine for the “old country.” She had little patience with her fellow immigrants who did! “They should be grateful to live here! Here they can eat and own their own home. You can’t feed your children on scenery, no matter how beautiful!” My mother never questioned her kinship with the Puritans of the Plymouth colony. Like her family, they had had a rough ocean crossing and a rough time establishing themselves. She didn’t hesitate to dress up like a pilgrim for the class pageant. She knew how to be grateful for what she had in this country and that her children would never be subject to some feudal overlord.
As I grew older I was chagrined to learn that the stuff of Thanksgiving pageants was not all myth. Romanticized, yes, but no fable. The first generation of Pilgrims were just that: faith-motivated people who recognized the counter-cultural demands of the Gospel which they could not realize in the established, and accommodating, church of King James. Despite the “puritan work ethic” which was to characterize the prosperity of the Yankee northeast, the original colonists knew how to “waste” time. A lot of time is “wasted”, is non-productive when travelling. Many of them had no sea legs and were sick through the voyage. They had first sought refuge in Holland but were not prospering and had to uproot and seek another new home. Wasn’t that a waste of time? They had to expend time, yet again, appealing to the King for a charter to settle in the American colony. They boarded the ship expecting to travel to Virginia but, as was the norm before steam-powered ships, were blown off course to what is now Massachusetts. Their first winter left most of them bedridden and burying the dead. And with all that, they would still take out time to study and pray the Bible, to spend the Sabbath in prayer and, as the first generation of colonists, to develop a good rapport with the native population. Some were even intrigued by the Indian culture and not quick to relegate their perception of the Great Spirit as demonic. You have to be willing to “waste” time to “do” all that!
You also have to “waste” time to bother giving thanks, as they actually did after surviving their first year. Thanks for what? We might say, a subsistence living. But they recognized that it was a living and that they had good neighbors (yes, the Indians were actually invited to this feast); that they had access to natural resources and, if they worked hard, they were free to work for themselves. Most of all, they acknowledged that those whom they had buried that first winter, were now rooted in the hope of the resurrection and those who had survived were not there by their own efforts but through God’s providence. Their need was the seedbed of gratitude rather than a dissatisfied sense of “entitlement”.
I believe there’s an intimate bond between gratitude and prayer–and both “waste” time. Neither produces quantifiable results. Neither delivers instant gratification. Both are habits of being and neither are efficient or productive of goods, wealth or advantages. At the same, both gratitude and prayer deepen life and generate hope as increased production or money in the bank never can.