Today is the last Sunday of the Church Year and the Sunday before our national Day of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the best antidote to selfishness and the best prescription for selflessness and thus leads naturally to the First Sunday in Advent.
Melanie McDonagh in the November 1 issue of The British Spectator makes the profound observation that the “cult of mindfulness” is largely a cult of self. It may or may not bring peace, alleviate stress, even heal depression, but it is an isolated lonely cult in which the focus is on one’s inner self. She is correct that the idea of living in the moment is pure Buddhism, and like Buddhism, the idea encourages us to escape suffering rather than face it, wrestle with it, and create meaning from it.
I have found that Christianity and Judaism pull the believer out of himself. It is through being self-less not self-ish that we find peace, and indeed, it is an inner peace that we find. How does this strange contradiction work? It works because in prayer we are focusing on the God who made us, and yet who also lives within us. Without belief in this objectively real God, we are merely wallowing in our own selves. Christianity brings the believer into community with all sorts of folks unlike him or her, different in age, gender, race, class, interests. We rub shoulders, we share tea, we are solicitous of one another. Most of all, we worship God (not ourselves) together, sharing this common outward vision, as we act out and re-present the great liturgical drama of church or temple.
And so Christianity and Judaism urge the believer to look around and, yes, smell the roses and live in the minute, for every minute is a precious gift. But these religions do far more. They urge the believer to face and interact with the real world. We call this interaction love, brotherly love. It is the sacrifice of that precious minute given by God, for the minutes are numbered, in order to give that minute to another, a stranger, someone unlike us. We pray for others; we visit the sick, shut-in, and lonely; we support charities that support life in all its facets, joyful and sorrowful. The history of the West is the history of this urge to better our world, to care for our communities.
Within this urge, this still small voice directing us to love, lies judgment. Judgment is not popular today; we are told we must not point fingers. And yet if we do not see clearly the true nature of what is happening around us and within us, we cannot better the world, and we cannot better ourselves.
God has spoken to his creation through his chosen people over many centuries. He has clearly marked the path to glory. The path takes us outside of ourselves so that God can enter those same selves. By shedding “me,” I miraculously find “me.”
One of the ways God has shown us how to do this is through simple thankfulness. The psalms are full of thanksgiving to God. To pray the psalms is to leave no room for depression. To offer oneself up is to know joy. It’s as simple as that. The Lord’s Prayer opens with praise that pulls us heavenward: Our Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come… Thanksgiving lives inside every word of praise.
And so this Thanksgiving Day, I look around me at my world, my nation, my community, my own heart. I try to see honestly, and I see generations of children raised in the cult of mindfulness. I see them highly mindful of their self-esteem, prone to take offense, demanding and self-righteous. They have lost themselves in themselves, as though whirling downwards, pulled into a vortex where depression imprisons them.
But on this Sunday before Advent and before Thanksgiving, I also look around me and see churches and temples where true thanksgiving is offered to a very real and loving Creator. I see voices raised together, not always in tune, singing thanksgiving and praise. I see love weaving among these communities of true believers who thank, not the stars, but the living and Almighty God for their very breath. I see islands of faith that show us how to be free from ourselves, not enslaved by ourselves. We do this by giving thanks to God for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Today is called in our Anglican tradition “Stir-up Sunday,” named after Thomas Cranmer’s powerful Collect, the collecting or gathering prayer for this day, written in the sixteenth century:
“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
This is one of the many prayers that have formed the Western tradition. In this prayer we are called to act, to care for those around us, and through the caring itself we are interiorly rewarded. We will be changed.
And so, we look to the season of Advent, the four weeks that proclaim the advent of God becoming man, the Incarnation, the Christ child born in a stable. How do we prepare ourselves for this great coming? We give thanks, and in the giving thanks we receive God, we know joy. It is his chosen path. The way is clear.