by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was thank you, that would suffice.” ~ Meister Eckhart, 14th Century
The Thanksgiving holiday this year for most of us will be unlike any other in our experience. No trips up to Grandmother’s house; no excitement in traveling back home by plane or train or car; no joyful anticipation about joining family and friends around a festive table. We’ll generally spend this day quietly with members of our immediate household or maybe even alone—so unlike every other Thanksgiving in memory. Sad but necessary and a motive to prayerfully hope for better days as we go forward.
These restrictions will inevitably force us not only to look forward but give us moments to be quiet and think about deeper things—in fact, the deepest: where is God in this disturbing time. So a line of reflection to help perhaps with these musings.
The observations here rely mainly on a person for whom I am giving particular thanks at this time — the Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner. This might seem initially like a strange connection for this holiday, entirely academic and even dated. But for me at least the life-project of this man speaks tellingly to our cry for some evidence of God and meaning in our lives today. I also find his thinking to be most helpful in my day-to-day living. His fundamental objective in a long life of prayer and searching was to make “faith accessible as possible.” In my judgement he did this remarkably well.
Rahner found that God is met in joy and suffering, in the down-to-earth trivial events of life. He wrote that the simple and honestly-accepted everyday life we all live contains in itself the eternal and silent mystery which we call God. As a corollary to this discovery, he found that prayer is best done when a person accepts him or herself as they are. When he made his famous declaration, “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all,” what he was saying, according to those who study his work, was that future generations of Christ’s followers will have to “have seen something,” or if not, in the words of one such Rahnerian student, they will be dead long before they die. And that “something seen” is God present in commonplace actions like walking, sleeping sitting down, working, eating and even laughter.
Here are one or two concrete examples of what Rahner believed about finding God in the ordinary:
- Sleeping—an act of losing control, a time of trust and acceptance, handing ourselves over to God with the willingness to expect God to be operating there still.
- Eating—especially meals in common, in community, as human acts and a grace from God which frees us “from the prison of our own loneliness.”
- Art—music, sculpture, poetry, paintings—human endeavors which leave us expecting more, therefore metaphors for grappling with the mystery of God.
In offering these admittedly superficial explanations of Karl Rahner’s spirituality, the hope is that these insights from this Jesuit mystic can inform our thinking and praying during this strangest of all Thanksgiving holidays. They may also assist us in living “examined lives.”
Finally, we surely give thanks today for the long list of people who are doing what we and they used to consider “ordinary tasks”, but which now become heroic: doctors, nurses, staff, cleaning people in Covid-19 hospital wards; grocery clerks and trash collectors; police and fire fighters; hospital chaplains and pharmacy staff. They have our Thanksgiving prayers to know God’s presence in these daily activities which are now are taking an enormous toll on them and their families.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.