"I should thank God for my creation if I knew I was a lost soul,” G. K. Chesterton remembers his grandfather saying. He quoted him with approval, but when I first read this passage from his Autobiography, as someone fairly new to serious Christianity, I thought it was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. It struck me as the kind of pious stuff religious people said because it sounded good. My reaction was: Why thank God for a few years on this earth if you’re going to spend eternity in hell? I wouldn’t. I’d be completely ticked off.
Only years later did I see the point. Having children helped. So did just getting older. Oddly enough the trials of life help you see the good of being alive. I would have thought the feeling the privilege of carefree youth, but it’s actually the privilege of care-laden age.
The beginning of Genesis tells us that God looked at his creation and saw that it was good. It’s something we forget. I thank God for specific gifts like my family and friends, having a home, being well-fed, getting modern medical care, having a job, those kind of things. When I’m feeling that life’s unfair, I try to bring to mind all the gifts I don’t deserve and thank God for them.
I rarely—actually, pretty much never—think of thanking him simply for being alive. That’s the first and basic gift and the gift most of us don’t remember to thank God for, because we don’t realize it’s a gift. I think most of us think of our lives as what the academics call “baseline data”: We’re just here. Or maybe we think of our lives as a right: We’re here because we should be. Or maybe we think of our lives as a gift to the cosmos: We’re here and the world’s lucky to have us.
But we’re not. Being here at all is God’s first gift. As Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, “When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?”
Not Always Easy
Still, it’s not always easy to be so thankful, because life can be unbelievably painful. You can feel that being born was a gift you could have done without and that had you been asked, you’d have politely returned to the gift to the giver. But here we are. It helps to know that our life is a good thing, even when it doesn’t seem to be, to know when life goes bad that our lives are good because God created us and then so loved the world that he sent his only Son. We may not feel this, but it helps to know it.
The latest issue of Christianity Today has an article by the philosopher Douglas Groothuis, who is losing his wife to a more than usually cruel form of dementia, after she had suffered for decades with another crippling sickness. “When I try to find the meaning in my wife’s suffering, I come up dry and gasping,” he writes.
Even as the disease progresses, she will still be made in God’s image; she will still be in covenant with me; she will still be living out the vicissitudes of Providence. And yet, and yet: “Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.” I know there is a larger meaning behind it all, but I cannot parse it out day by darkening day.
The Catholic writer Andre Dubus lost his legs in a car accident, as he was helping a disabled couple at the side of the road, and then lost his wife and children to divorce. (He’s not to be confused with his son Andrew Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog.) He writes about these losses in an essay called “Broken Vessels.”
For a couple of days in June he had wanted to die. Two months later, he writes that since those days,
I have not wanted my life to end, not wanted to confront You with anger and despair. I receive You in the Eucharist at daily Mass, and look at You on the cross, but mostly I watch the priest, and the old deacon, a widower, who brings me the Eucharist; and the people who walk past me to receive; and I know they have all endured their own agony, and prevailed in their own way, though not alone in drawing their hope and strength from those they love, those who love them; and from You, in the sometimes tactile, sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes seemingly lethal way that You give.
He writes a few lines later: “My crippling is a daily and living sculpture of certain truths: we receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude, and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever remains of life after the losses.”
Thanksgiving for the Christian
Thanksgiving for the Christian isn’t just gratitude for being alive. It is that first, and that by itself is something much of the world doesn’t understand. We have the advantage of having Someone to thank when we’re feeling thankful for life. But sometimes life hurts too much and we can’t gin up the feeling of gratitude for life. How Chesterton managed it I don’t know.
It’s important even then to thank God for our lives, as a statement of the truth we know but don’t feel. When we feel like this, we can thank God that we live in the hope that in the end, as Revelation tells us, Our Lord “will wipe away every tear from our eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain”—and with gratitude for that hope, to embrace with whole hearts whatever remains of life after the losses.