When I worked in the Dominican Republic in our sister parish, I befriended a family that seemed poorer than most. They lived in an isolated place filled with wind, sky and dust, but without electricity, water or even a latrine, and had only one of everything: one child, a one-room house, one chair, one daily meal, one table, one bed, one pot and one chicken. We often said that we would have an enormous feast together when that chicken was good and fat!
They got word to me one day that their daughter was sick, so I went to their home, anointed and prayed with the girl and then sat outside under a sea of stars and talked into the night with my friends. When it was time to leave, the father untied their chicken and handed it to me in gratitude for coming. We proceeded to argue for 20 minutes in Spanish about this until I realized my friend would be insulted if I refused the gift. So here I was, in the end, bumping down this rough road in an old truck with a living, clucking chicken next to me on the front seat, laughing my head off at the enormity of God’s grace.
Whenever I think of Thanksgiving or the Eucharist, I recall this profound experience in my life. Like the widow in the Gospel, this family, which had so little, gave away a most prized possession as a loving gesture of gratitude. Like God the Father who gives away his Son, the Good Shepherd who goes after the one stray or the challenge Jesus offers to the rich young man, we are called to a heroic generosity which is not afraid to give its all in a love that is astonishingly particular. Perhaps we can only hand over as a gift to others what we first recognize as a gift poured into our lives by God, who is gracious and generous. Gratitude grounds and forms all actions of charity.
When I think of my friends in the Dominican Republic, I often wondered why they never complained about the poverty of their lives, the lack of money, food and opportunities, the harsh lot of work in the fields that was theirs. One could reasonably argue that they should have been angry at the injustice of life, envious of the rich, trying to overthrow the system, resentful of the hand dealt them. And yet they were not.
They were surprisingly happy, faith-filled, generous and free of self-pity. They carried themselves with a dignity and confidence that belied their circumstances. Then I realized that the “chicken incident” was the key that answered my questions. My Dominican friends’ great secret of joy flowed from their deep gratitude to God for everything.
As we pause this week to thank the Lord for all good gifts and as the church pauses every day to offer praise and thanks to the Father in the Eucharist, we know how much we have been given. Life itself, parents, family and friends, food and shelter, education and books, love and joy, Jesus, the church and the sacraments, the promise of salvation and the experience of forgiveness, the beauty of nature and poetry, and so many other experiences and opportunities remind us that our existence is mysterious and magical. The Lord has given us so much, even beyond our ability to comprehend the enormity of the gift. All we can do in return is offer our thanks and praise to God and then generously share everything that has been lavished on us.
Gratitude frees us from jealousy, anger, self-pity and resentment. A grateful heart stops asking for more and instead wonders why so much already. A spirit filled with thanksgiving clings to nothing because it knows all came from God and all is returning to him. Gratitude takes me out of the center and puts God there, as we worship the Lord of all gifts in thanks and praise.
Resentment seeks a higher place but will never be satisfied; gratitude gladly takes a lower seat because it is already full. Grateful people smile more, forgive readily, volunteer cheerfully, put more in the collection and hand over their only chicken to an astonished friend because they have fallen in love with the Lord of the feast and know that all was his in the first place. Thanksgiving invites us to look about our lives in wonder and awe at how much God must love us because we have all of this from his gracious hands!