Gratitude is the heart’s memory – A Thanksgiving Reflection
Fr. Thomas Rosica
October 7, 2016
The celebration of Thanksgiving in Canada makes an interesting counterpoint to the holiday celebrated by our American neighbours. While Americans remember the Pilgrims settling in the New World, Canadians give thanks for a successful harvest. At the heart of our Thanksgiving celebration is the idea of giving thanks for the goodness of the season past. And yet how often do we simply give thanks to God for who we are and what we have when things are going well in our lives?
Thankfulness is much more than saying “Thank you” because we have to. Thankfulness is a way to experience the world, a way to perceive, a way to be surprised. Thankfulness is having open eyes and a short distance between the eyes and the heart.
In the New Testament, so much of Jesus’ ministry took place at table. So many meals punctuate the New Testament — meals with Levi and his friends, meals with Simon the Pharisee, meals with crowds on the hillsides, meals with disciples, the ideal meals described in his parables. You can eat your way through the gospels! It is ultimately during the final meal that Jesus leaves us with his most precious gift in the Eucharist.
What are the features and qualities of grateful people?
Remembrance is the most precious feature of the virtue of gratitude. One of the most important qualities is the ability to say “thank you” to others and to take no one and nothing for granted. Those who possess the virtue of gratitude are truly rich. They not only know they have been blessed, but they continuously remember that all good things come from God.
To acknowledge others, to say thank you, is a mark of greatness. If our colleagues and volunteers are dispirited and unmotivated, might it have something to do with the fact that we have never expressed our gratitude to them for who they are and what they do? The courage to thank — that is, the courage to see the gifts and experiences of this world all together as a gift — changes not only the person who gains this insight. It also changes the environment, the world, and those who surround that person.
Gratitude is creative. People bound together by gratitude are always discovering and awakening abundant sources of strength. The more thankful a person is, the richer he or she is within. Thankful people store up in their grateful memory all the good experiences of the past, just as the French proverb states: “Gratitude is the heart’s memory.”
At this time of year I have often watched Babette’s Feast, one of my favourite movies about the transforming powers of a meal. It is a story of the opening of the hearts of a small, puritanical community on the coast of Norway by the generosity of a French refugee cook. The movie, directed by Gabriel Axel, received the Academy Award in 1986 for Best Foreign Film and is a faithful adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s 1958 short story.
Here is the plot. In 19th-century Denmark, two adult sisters live in an isolated village with their father, who is the honoured pastor of a small Protestant church that is almost a sect unto itself. Although they each are presented with a real opportunity to leave the village, the sisters choose to stay with their father, to serve him and their church.
After some years, a French woman refugee, Babette, arrives at their door, begs them to take her in, and commits herself to work for them as maid/housekeeper/cook. She arrived with a note from a French singer who had passed through the area some time before, fallen in love with one of the sisters, but left disappointed. The note commends Babette to these “good people” and offhandedly mentions that she can cook.
During the intervening dozen years Babette cooks the meals the sisters are used to, plain to a fault. But in the 12th year of her service to this family, Babette wins the French lottery, a prize of 10,000 francs. At the same time, the sisters are planning a simple celebration of the 100th anniversary of their father, the founder of their small Christian sect. They expect Babette to leave with her newfound wealth but, instead, she surprises them by offering to cook a meal for the anniversary.
Although they are secretly concerned about what Babette, a Catholic and a foreigner, might do, the sisters allow her to go ahead.
Babette uses just the tiniest opening, a modest celebration, to cook up a storm and wreak havoc in the lives of the sisters, and with their community, by such outrageous generosity.
In the end, Babette’s feast has some startling effects. The community becomes reconciled. Those at table experience the transformation and transcendence of the mundane, physical, and temporal dimensions of reality through the experience of a feast. The dinner guests at Babette’s feast encounter the divine and receive fulfillment through the physical act of eating.
If you are seeking a wonderful way of digesting your Thanksgiving meal this year, I recommend that you watch Babette’s Feast. It is a masterpiece that helps us to explore divine generosity with the image of a meal and its transforming quality. You will discover that the meal is only the scenery of this feast, not the script! May it be the same at our dining room tables this weekend