Giving Thanks

It’s the day after Thanksgiving – I was eating yesterday with family in S.C. and far away from computers. I’m still eating today but found a little time and computer connection in order to make a short post and catch up on mail.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann taught that one way of understanding the sin in the Garden of Eden, was that we ate the only food there that had not been given to us as food – and thus the only thing for which we could not give thanks. It was our failure to be “eucharistic” beings that became characteristic of our sin.

The more years I’ve meditated on this, the more convinced I am of its truth and on far more than a moral level. Our failure to give God thanks is not a mere “moral” failure. It is a failure within the very depths of our being.

My wife and I were both brought up on “bread and butter notes,” the polite notes of thanks Southerners send to one another for almost everything (they may do this elsewhere, but I only know the South). Thus, my children keep lists of what they receive for Christmas as well as what they want – so that they will be able to write the notes required by the act of receiving. It’s a good habit.

But on some level, this is a moral act, a doing of what we should do. You write bread and butter notes because you’re supposed to.

But giving thanks to God is more than a spiritual “bread and butter note,” thanking Him for what we have received. It is, finally, a healing of the oldest wound in humanity. We who came from nothing, and thus received all that we have, give thanks as an act of authentic existence. Anything other than thanks is to act as if we created ourselves, as if there were no God and we were not His creatures.

There are many events, many occurences in our lives that in and of themselves do not elicit thanks. The tragedies of our existence usually elicit something quite opposite of thanksgiving. And yet to let such tragedies define our existence, much less our relationship to God, is to refuse finally to accept the gift of our existence as a gift. There are Psalms of complaint, and we are certainly not forbidden to pray them. And yet at a core far deeper, we must give thanks. I bless the God Who gives me Life because I know that all things are indeed “working together for good” (Roman 8:28), not because I understand, but because He is God and wills only good for me.

Some years back, as my wife and I were praying for a job for me (so that I could feed my family as we converted to Orthodoxy), she announced one night, “I believe that God is going to answer our prayer very soon” (we had been praying for about two years at that point). “We should begin to offer prayers of thanksgiving tonight.” I didn’t argue with her, but I did ask her why she thought we should do that.

“When God answers our prayer, we will be grateful. Anybody can offer thanks when they’re grateful. We need to start now.”

Her wisdom was astounding to me then, and continues to astound me. Indeed I give thanks for her (and am grateful as well). Thanks be to God forever.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





5 responses to “Giving Thanks”

  1. Meg Lark Avatar
    Meg Lark

    I had never read that observation of Fr. Alexander’s, but it makes *so much sense.* So glad you posted this! (BTW, even we Yankees *used* to write bread-and-butter notes, back when we had manners — in my youth. We were taught, though, that it was a thank-you note to one’s hostess when one had stayed overnight someplace.)

  2. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I only spoke for the South because of my ignorance. I’m not surprised to hear of such courtesies elsewhere. Manners were a very large issue when I was a child, and seem to be much less so, everywhere, today. Everything is just a bit coarser (doubtless I am coarser than I should me myself). I do think that “bread and butter note” is a southern expression.

  3. Dean Arnold Avatar

    I will not ask what you were eating with your family in S.C., but only mention that my brother greeted everyone Friday with, “Happy turkey sandwich day!”

    Based on your economic dispensation, I suppose it could still have been very eucharistic. (Our priest reminded everyone to freeze all leftovers until Christmas 😉

    A thankful heart is a wonderful thing and a great mystery. I always marvel at the Biblical characters and saints who are overjoyed with thankgiving at their persecutions and sufferings, only lamenting they they are not worthy to suffer for Christ. Rather, I am worthy of their godliness.

    However, I will say that it has been my practice when I get into times of frustration and worry to begin to list the things for which I can be thankful. This usually happens when I’m driving down the road. It is always very successful. We have so much to be thankful for, some of them big and obvious, and it is good to “name it and claim it” — a much more relevant use of the phrase.

  4. Dean Arnold Avatar

    Rather, I am “not” worthy of their godliness. (Whoops.)

  5. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Archbishop Dmitri gave a general dispensation from the fast for Thanksgiving Day – so I ate Turkey, with good conscience. On Friday, at my inlaws, the rule was invoked to “eat what is set before you.”

    Sharing a meal with my Parkinson’s afflicted Mother in Law is a great joy. Her husband was the most totally committed man I have ever known to giving thanks to God. I greatly missed him this year. It was our first Thanksgiving without him. His battle with lymphoma over his last three years were occasions for some of my finest hours with him (fine for me). His joy was to speak only of the goodness of God, and it was a subject we could not exhaust. I rebelled against this when I first met Beth and was a very young Christian. I foolishly argued with this great prayer warrior. I recall him once saying to me, as I had bitterly thrown suffering in his face to win an argument: “You mark the manner of my death!”

    I was embarrassed then, and ashamed later when I watched this man end his years in pain, but never without rejoicing. He died confessing the goodness of God. I want only to become such a man before I end my days. I have so much more to learn. I do miss him, particularly at Thanksgiving. I recall his next to the last Thanksgiving, when he was surrounded by his children and spouses, grandchildren, etc. Two of his daughters married clergy (one Orthodox, one Presbyterian). Two granddaughters are married to Orthodox clergy. His prayer of thanksgiving was quite long, and made us all feel unworthy of the joy we brought him. I wish I had recorded it. Memory eternal!

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