I find myself here in the beautiful, sun-christened riverbank, where birds sing eloquent concertos and the suburban wasteland exerts an indifferent vibe of placelessness, at least in my own experience, as the son of dual-home-owning and state residing parents. The conversations here are graced with the same warm, sun-kissed quality with which the sun in the sky smiles back at us. My mother hugs me firmly, my father massaging me with tender movements, and myself mutually jubilant as I encountered and embraced my brothers and their lovers. I long to be found and lost in the All in All, but am often distracted, lonely beyond solitude, and prideful; I am reminded of this Scripture verse: “If only you [we] would harken to his voice” (Ps 95:7). I am often too intimidated by this reflection, knowing that through it Jesus will wreck my life, in which monk, priest, and spiritual writer Thomas Merton received an epiphany on an urban street on an ordinary day. There, in the post-industrial desert of materialism and individualism, he considered “strangers” walking by him as the very neighbors about whom one must, when permeated and disturbed by the intimate embrace of our Lover, exclaim “there is no way of telling someone that they are shining brighter than the sun” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander). Beautiful moments punctuating the monotony of the days here with my family, I knew that I am loved, affirmed, heard, and known here, receiving as well as giving myself to others, albeit in the most imperfect and fragile ways, and that I would assuredly celebrate this occasion, called “Thanksgiving,” chiefly with time shared eating and communing around table.
These expectations, however consistent annually my whole life, were not the reality. Today, as my brothers were gone to celebrate with other families, I woke up vomiting the food I ate the prior night and this morning, with some pain and stomach-ache. Each time, as I was heading toward my doom in the bathroom, I was compelled to reach out to Jesus, my Lover, praying “Lord Jesus have mercy.” I knew, like years prior when I encountered a terrifying panic-attack, that I must be rooted today in prayer, in meditating on the Office, a few Psalms and the Gospel reading, so that my ship could be anchored and my stability in God’s temple secure, although some luggage and walls may be lost and pain felt in this storm. Without attempting to pray, despite my most fragile, broken, unfocused prayer posture, I knew I would be lost, drowning in frustration at my discomfort and loneliness, not knowing how to find peace or how to make sense of half-a-dozen painful oral iterations, the absence of most of my family, and my stinging loneliness and rootlessness. At risk of being over-dramatic (which I certainly am here? Up to you), I want to sketch how this experience has truly been a “thanksgiving.”
Eucharista, Greek for “thanksgiving,” is a common term in many Christian traditions synonymous with “Holy Communion” or “The Lord’s Supper”: A sacrament to remember, encounter, and spiritually/(bodily*) receive the sacrifice of our Savior Jesus. I remember a particular mysterious paradox in this holy Sacrament; often when one receives, especially after prior fasting (i.e., eucharistic fast), one is marked by the utter under-nourishment that this ‘meal’ provides physiologically. I remember Vanier’s remarks on the sixth chapter of John, as Jesus proclaims He is the “Bread of Life.” He says that right after feeding the five thousand, many returned, expecting more physical food to nourish them. But the Bread that God in Christ gives, is himself, one who self-empties himself, who truly feels his own pain, he is bruised and broken, and ultimately embodies the True Human. This posture of receiving and claiming one’s own poverty (i.e., humility, vulnerability, ‘wounded healing’) and the poverty of our socio-political system (i.e., ‘carrying your own cross,’ ‘the world’), is the only one by which the True Bread is eaten, nourishing us not with the comforts of a satiated stomach, but with the Kingdom of God of which the weary, dying soul, the ‘poor (in spirit)’ inherit and receive.
Put another way, the way God feeds us, Philosopher Peter Rollins says, is not in making our stomachs full with food, but in making us hungry: hungering and thirsting more for righteousness, making us hunger for a genuine love, a genuine heart, and a genuine community: yearning for God “like the deer thirsts for water” (Ps 42). God feeds us with hunger, and certainly fed me ‘thanksgiving dinner,’ but not by giving me three-odd plates of scrumptious food, but by my inability to eat, causing my physical and spiritual pain to rise up from the suppressed wells deep within me. These wells were my drink, and my stomach-pain was my food, because it drew me closer to receiving God in my midst, by being thankful for my mother’s loving support, as my whole family hoped I would feel better. Now I remember how good food tastes, how dependent I am on my mother despite my twenty-three year old milieu, how much my family loves me and cares deeply for my well-being, and for my deep desire to be fully loved and known by the One who walked and is walking among us here and now.
Like the psalmist who writes “my tears were my drink,” and Jesus who says blessed are those who hunger and mourn, could these be the very postures from which space to receive and know God are carved out? That in our mental acknowledgement and existential intimacy with our pain, helplessness, and brokenness, whether it be loneliness, depression, economic insecurity, anxiety, et cetera, we are actually in the presence of God and more fully in union with God when we surrender our hurts to the Voice that says “we are loved, we are beautiful, we are good,” to the Face in the least of these, in others who have offered their whole selves in the midst of their pain, the poor, who look at us with blazing, sun-beaming faces of tender love. Perhaps this is why we must also carry our Cross and die before we can find new life. Perhaps this is why Saints are often depicted with halos, not because they have ascended a mighty ladder towards God, but because they were graced with the bravery to fully accept their True Selves that God made, with all their hurt, imperfections, and emptiness, all messy and out in the open (e.g., the woman caught in adultery), not because they were amazingly heroic, but because they were grounded in the most ordinary, daily task and discipline of being fully themselves, who God has uniquely called them to be, in the midst of and even because of their struggles and hurt. The Virgin Mary, for instance, many say, is and was the closest human being to Jesus, and is hailed as holy not in her own strength, but in the poverty before God she encountered in her teenage, genocidal, homeless, relationally tense, immigrating, potentially promiscuous context, in which she found God in the midst of her weakness, and heart-ache. By accepting and embracing their true pain as the means, not the obstacle, by which they would know and commune with God, the Saints allowed God’s blazing sun to reflect off their faces. Perhaps this is our spiritual task, as Father Henri Nouwen says, to receive all things as Gifts that may lead us to God’s love, and that one must never separate pain and joy, death and resurrection, for the former is the means and context from which the latter emerges. Perhaps by God’s grace, we can only let our broken, hurting, haloed-heads shine as we offer our brokenness to others as a Gift, not to fear, but to embrace as the Way one can also reflect the sun-rays of Love which we have already received since eternity in the Trinity. As Chris Heuertz says “joy is brokenness fully unveiled.” Maybe fasting and eating belong together, allowing the food to be more enjoyed and one more thankful, maybe silence and words belong together, allowing the words to find their reverence and love to be intimately encountered, and maybe death and resurrection, pain and joy, belong together, so that we can travel feebly but confidently on the pilgrim’s path, daring to encounter our true Human, who has come and lived for us, and is living among us, already in Jesus Christ our Lord, if we would have eyes to see those around us.
Although I haven’t physically eaten in eighteen hours, perhaps the Food that I have received today will truly guide me in appreciating, loving, and giving thanks more deeply for the friends, family, food, and God in our midst in Christ, who brings us together and by whom we are fully nourished and loved. Maybe true thanksgiving is found on a beach, in a cathedral, or on a slum street, wherever folks gather together, say a word of thanks, remember, invite, and receive a homeless rabbi in their midst, and are given Bread and Wine, of which there is neither earning nor exclusion, but a (by God’s grace) space of ultimate belonging and grace, where all eat spiritual and physical food together, just as Jesus was and is fully God(i.e.,spiritual) and fully Human(i.e., physical). God longs for us to have enough physical food as well, not just “bread for the soul,” but our daily Bread must nourish fully our stomachs and hearts only in the context of the Community (I.e., the Church) that God has brought together. I once heard Father Richard Rohr say that the unifying factor for all Catholics that they must agree on is not a list of doctrines or creeds, not even ‘major public policies’ of the Catholic Church, but rather that one desires to participate in and finds significance, God, in the Eucharist. They are not bound together by intellectually affirming the same things, but by finding God in the Meal that started in the Garden and will continue forever in the New Jerusalem, a meal from which all cultures across all traditions and centuries for two millennia utter the same word “Amen”: ‘so be it,’ ‘this is faithful and true.’ Thanks be to God, who is given to us in the Bread and the Wine.