Signage at the entry to a school near our Lowcountry convent urges students and their families to “Thank Life” at this time of year. It should not have startled me. After all, Thanksgiving Day is so often referred to as Turkey Day and Christmas has become the Winter Holiday.
It seems as though it’s now considered a bit outmoded to thank the God of Creation and to celebrate the coming of the Messiah. It is definitely in style, however, to market and buy a lot and eat outlandishly.
As believers, we might reflect on whether we are joining in our holiday customs — charming as they are — in a true spirit of Godly gratitude or whether we are simply immersing ourselves in a glut of goods and falling into outright gluttony.
St. Thomas Aquinas offered, in his “Summa Theologica,” some valuable insights into the virtue of temperance. The portraits of Aquinas make it evident that he was not overly ascetic. That having been said, we can find a great deal of wisdom in the way he approaches the pleasures of food and drink.
On one hand, he notes that intemperance is downright childish and slavish. It is the infantile “Gimme” that wants more and more. It is inconsiderate to overdo, he teaches, and it is clearly not the way that God intends humans to use earthly goods. Overindulgence, as we know, can selfishly deprive others of what they need and can also be addictive. Gluttony disables us.
On the other hand, Aquinas says that the things which we enjoy are oriented, by God’s design, toward “nature’s preservation.” The Angelic Doctor, as he’s known, charges those who forego legitimate pleasures with “insensibility.” Fast and abstinence have their place and are spiritually beneficial, but excesses in these disciplines can be harmful and sinful too. They can endanger life and health as much as gluttony does.
Balance, then, would require one or two things of us as we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas feasting. One thing is that we concern ourselves with those who do not have what we have.
We are often blithely unaware of the masses of people around the globe who barely survive on gruel and vegetables — and those who are starving. We are also tuned out to the people a mile or so away from us who might be living on the edge.
Our sisters who routinely distribute food to the poor four days a week recently became aware of a woman with special needs sons who has been living in her car. They are helping to feed her and, with the help of donors and a generous innkeeper, have arranged temporary housing as they seek a more lasting solution to her plight.
This, it should be noted, is happening in the midst of affluence.
A second thing we are called to do is to savor temperately the turkey, gravy, filling, mashed potatoes or mac and cheese, the green bean casserole, the cranberry sauce, and the lavish desserts that show up. We need to eat them with grace — recited to God in the company of others — and with gratitude. The season is, after all, about thanking the God of Life and seeking to treasure his gifts.