Not particularly grateful

The only appropriate rejoinder to grace is to give thanks.

By Molly T. Marshall

Travel recently took me to Andalusia, ancestral home of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Ga. I had not visited the home in person, but only through the ways in which her novels and short stories were grounded there. The farm provided the stability her writing required; her bounded life, constricted by lupus, allowed her vocation to flourish.

I peered into the spare room where she spent the mornings typing what she dared not quench. Her small desk, single bed, oak bookcases and threadbare rug were the meager supplement to her wide-ranging imagination.

"A Good Man is Hard to Find" and "The Violent Bear it Away" were honed in these environs. The simplicity of her life here gives truth to her well-known statement: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” And many considered hers an odd life. Peacocks and poetry and a plantation house helped her write about pain and grace, freaks and faith.

Her prayer journal has been published of late, and in it we find the depth of her faith, her deep longing for God. Indeed, the whole journal seems to be a burning desire for nearness to God. Her humanity and ironic humor shine through. One of my favorite lines — repeated twice — is: “I would like to be a mystic and immediately.”

She does not suffer fools gladly, as her acerbic wit conveys. One of my favorite lines is, “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.” Yet, she is ineluctably drawn to God, and her writings are haunted by the presence of Christ.

This author had a profound sense of being simply “the instrument for Your story.” Her reflections, written as an intimate conversation with God, displayed her yearning to convey her faith in compelling ways, even as she struggled with dimensions of the sacramental life of her Catholicism. She was ambitious, yet humble, and her perceptive take on the human condition is bracing.

One entry in the journal caught my attention in this season of Thanksgiving:

When I think of all I have to be thankful for I wonder that You don’t just kill me now because You’ve done so much for me already & I haven’t been particularly grateful. My thanksgiving is never in the form of self sacrifice — a few memorized prayers babbled once over lightly. All this disgusts me in myself....

O’Connor’s willingness to name her struggle to give thanks can prompt us to similar honest confession. We are not particularly grateful either much of the time.

Perhaps our sin is that of presumption; as life rocks along without too many incursions of chaos, providence becomes the air we breathe, imperceptible most of the time. God’s faithfulness in sustaining our lives goes unnoticed, and the humility of praise does not well up.

Our American forebears were wise to recognize that they had been preserved through hardship and therefore giving thanks was the proper response. The lore surrounding the “first Thanksgiving” eludes historical precision; however, as a nation we continue to observe this secular/sacred day devoted to gratitude.

Being grateful can be painful, of course, in the midst of suffering and the “cry of absence” when loved ones no longer accompany us. Some seats will be empty as family and friends gather for the feast.

For those not invited, the season is even more painful. When it is more challenging to express our thanksgiving, we begin to live into the Pauline admonition to “give thanks ... at all times” (Ephesians 5:20) as a discipline that cultivates a grateful heart.

I am astonished at the capacity of those with few material goods to be thankful. Because they see life itself as a gift in their precarious contexts, their praise is worthy of emulation. The joyous music of tribal churches in Myanmar, which I will witness in this coming week, invites our participation and a deepening of thankful worship.

The only appropriate rejoinder to grace is to give thanks. O’Connor cautions that this is a challenge. “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” Indeed, the change we most need in our time is faithful expressions of gratitude, even if we feel the pain of our less than supple hearts. 

At the end of the journal entry describing her ingratitude, O’Connor comes around to this inclusio:

Thank you, dear God, I believe I do feel thankful for all You’ve done for me. I want to. I do.

And so do we, I trust. Happy Thanksgiving!

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.