ChristThis year has been difficult for our family. There has been illness, death, and financial struggles. My brother is in jail. How do we gather at Thanksgiving and thank God for our blessings when there seem to be so few of them this year?

I am sorry to hear of the troubles your family has suffered this year. Our divine/human journey seems to be one of “sunshine and shadow,” doesn’t it? Sometimes the shadows are especially dark and deep and last for longer than we think we can bear. The Paschal Mystery of suffering, death and resurrection is so integral to our lives on earth that Jesus came to walk that journey for us, not taking away Good Friday, but suffering for us and with us, never leaving us orphaned, companioning us to resurrection and new life.

But right now, with troubles still painfully present, Easter joy is hard to imagine, much less feel. In the midst of all the tangles of life, how do we “hum in the darkness,” as Henri Nouwen put it? How do we summon an attitude of gratitude, even for one day, as we gather family and friends around our table?

Gratitude is an acceptance of the mystery that is our life. Tremendous beauty, consolation and love are interspersed amidst the pain, the challenge and the grief. Yet Jesus tells us our sorrow is temporary; joy is what lasts (See Jn 16:20-22). Your life circumstances are what they are this Thanksgiving, but you can still choose gratitude as your fundamental orientation toward life.

I would encourage honesty, simplicity and hope in your Thanksgiving prayers this year. God knows it’s been a rough year, so allow yourselves to acknowledge this by naming your sorrows, perhaps by writing them on small slips of paper and placing them in a dish at the center of the table. The statements can be honest and simple: Lord, it’s been so hard to pay the bills these last months. Or, Lord, I miss my brother so, and my heart aches for the loneliness he must feel as he sits in his cell today.

Next, go around the group, inviting individual prayers of gratitude, again honest and simple: Lord, I thank you for those of us who are able to be together today and I remember all those who are not here but are present in our hearts. Or, Lord I am thankful that we have been able to keep our home in the midst of our financial difficulties. Invite those who would prefer not to speak their prayers aloud to simply bow their heads for a brief moment before moving on to the next person.

Finally, light a large candle in the center of your table. This candle is the light of Christ in your midst, lighting the darkness, giving you hope. Join hands around the table, lean in toward the light and pray the Lord’s Prayer together. Then sit down to feast and celebrate the love present, the gift of life and the good food you share. Allow for sadness, laughter, tears, spilled milk, grousing and complaining, good news and hopeful expectations. (As always, avoid politics, if you can!) Express the sorrow and express the joy! You are a real family with all your gifts and challenges, gathering to follow the way of love and gratitude. The Lord is present in your midst!

(Christ is a consultant in ministry in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The married mother of four young adult children, she gives talks and workshops, leads retreats and is a spiritual director. Christ self-publishes materials for parishes and is the author of “Journeying with Mark,” “Journeying with Luke” and “Journeying with Matthew.” Published by Paulist Press, the books are intended to be used by families in the car on the way to Mass.)