This week we will observe Thanksgiving. As I am sure you know, Thanksgiving is not a feast of the Church but, rather, a national or civil holiday. This, however, should not prevent us from keeping this feast, particularly as, in our culture, it provides for most of us time away from work to gather with family and friends, and to pause from the busy pace of life for at least a few hours and enjoy the company of those with whom God has joined us together.
In the anaphora prayer of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom we give thanks to God "for all things of which we know and of which we know not.” Some of these things are obviously what we would label “good” things - family, ample food, a warm home, good health - the kind of things we think about on Thanksgiving Day. Others, however, such as pain, disease, loss, enemies - and the list goes on - we would be much less likely to call good. These are things that most likely would not make our Top Ten list if we were to count our blessings.
And yet if we were honest with ourselves would we not admit that it has often been these things that have drawn us closer to God than the obviously good things?
One of the great saints of last century, St Nikolai of Zica, was deeply aware of this reality as can be seen in this prayer for his enemies from his beautiful book, Prayers by the Lake:
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them. Enemies have driven me into Your embrace more than friends have.... Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.
It is easy to give thanks to God for the good things in this life, although, if we are honest, we do not even always do that. But St Nikolai, like all the saints, teaches us to give thanks for all things - the good, the bad, and the ugly - because all things are made salvific by thanksgiving and prayer.
Melitsa Zernov, wife of Nicholas Zernov, a prominent Orthodox scholar of the 20th century, tells of a conversation she had with St Nikolai about his experience in Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp, during WWII. Asking him if the camp destroyed spiritual life in a person he replied:
It was like this in the camp: you sat in a corner and repeated to yourself, I am dust and ashes. Lord, take my soul! Suddenly your soul ascended to the Heavens and you saw God face to face. However, you could not bear it and so you said to Him: I am not ready, I cannot, take me back! Then you sat for hours on end and repeated to yourself: I am dust and ashes. Lord, take my soul! And, once again the Lord took your soul.... In short, if it were possible, I would give the remainder of my life for one hour in Dachau.
In this season of Thanksgiving, as we gather with family and friends, we will undoubtedly give thanks to God for the good things in our lives. The saints, however, have led us to a higher path. They have taught us to give thanks to God for all things. Truly we can find grace everywhere and in all circumstances if we will but only seek God. For though we are but dust and ashes, as our sufferings remind us, God desires to reveal His face to us, the vision of which is our salvation.
With love in Christ,
and wishes for a blessed Thanksgiving,