“We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love…”
I first started praying the General Thanksgiving found on page 836 in the Book of Common Prayer with regularity when I was in seminary (1999-2002). While I had been an Episcopalian for years by that point, somehow, this particular prayer had escaped my attention. The prayer, however, was a frequent part of daily worship at the Virginia Theological Seminary — probably because its author, the Reverend Dr. Charles Price, had been a longtime VTS faculty member. I can still recall vividly the day this prayer began to make its journey from words in my head to feelings in my heart.
I had probably been at seminary for a couple of months. Tabitha, Matthew (who was 2 years old at the time) and I were settling in to our new routine. We were navigating Northern Virginia traffic, getting used to life in a large raucous apartment complex, being a “one car family,” and awkwardly juggling the ways in which seminary (not unlike the Church) can simply overtake every corner of one’s life. We had been so busy with all the details, we’d hardly taken a breath. On this particular morning, I arrived at Chapel full of anxiety about unread reading, unwritten papers, a late night visit to urgent care because Matthew was sick with an ear infection, and that nagging sense that I was already failing at whatever it meant to “be a seminarian.”
We knelt at the conclusion of Morning Prayer, and the officiant invited us to join in the praying of this prayer of Thanksgiving. I never made it past the first paragraph. Suddenly, through the blur of tears one thing became exceedingly clear: my vision of my world had narrowed to the extent that all I could see were the challenges, the obstacles, the difficulties, and my failures. I had been so busy keeping my head down, I had forgotten to look around and notice the splendor, beauty, and mystery which was everywhere. I left the Chapel that day breathing a bit freer. The sky somehow looked bluer, and the trees seemed ablaze with their fall foliage. I took note of the scores of squirrels frolicking across the campus green, and delighted in the smell of freshly mown grass. For the first time in weeks, I felt my feet connected to the ground, and for the next few hours, I managed to “stay out of my head.” The racing thoughts slowed to an amble. Peace may have not flowed like a river, but I did feel settled for the first time in weeks.
In the past seven days, much has happened in our world and in our country. Even with the midterm elections (mostly) concluded, the anxiety and vitriol attendant to our country’s political life shows little sign of abating, even temporarily. We have not yet finished mourning the violence and loss of life at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pennsylvania, and another mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in California has assaulted us with the awareness that the threat of unpredictable, deadly violence looms over each and everyone of us day in and day out. The latest deadly wildfire in California reminds us of the inherent fragility of life, and the tenuousness of things we often assume are secure.
If we’re not careful, though, “staying informed” about all these things can result in a loss of the capacity for even a moment of joy. We become impatient or agitated with people (including ourselves) who aren’t taking these dire situations seriously enough. How can we possibly be thankful when so much is out of whack? What good is gratitude when so many people are hurting and mourning? When so few people in power seem to care about anything or anyone but themselves, isn’t a practice of gratitude inherently selfish?
This week, in the middle of the unrelenting news cycle, I’ve taken the first few lines of the General Thanksgiving as a personal challenge. I have intentionally said, “Thank you God!” for every sip of water I’ve taken from my water bottle since last Friday. I started following a couple of nature photographers on Twitter whose work reminds me of the beauty of God’s creation, and I’ve rediscovered the antics of otters, foxes, birds, hippos, and raccoons add levity to the newsfeed which can feel unbearably heavy. I made it a point to get outside and breathe deeply a few times a day, and if there was any sort of wind, I intentionally faced into it, and reflected on how the Wind of the Spirit blows wherever it wills. I prayed for the Holy Spirit’s creative wind to refresh and renew my heart.
I enjoyed times of laughter with friends. I reconnected with my body by renewing my commitment to daily exercise. I marveled at the talent of musicians, while clapping my hands, tapping my toes, and singing along with an audience at a bluegrass music concert. Along the way, I’ve been as angry, as sad, as frustrated, as tired, and as unmotivated as the next person, but the accumulation of these tiny, intentional actions of thanksgiving have established a little beachhead of gratitude in my world-weary soul. And so after a week of my “Gratitude Project,” I can report the following:
This world is beautiful.
The gift of life is wonderful.
And love is a mystery.
Thank you, God!