The Rev. Dr. Irina Dubinski

Thanksgiving 2022: Jubilate Deo, St Ignatius, and a priest who was told to "fake it"

This past summer, I decided to grow a little vegetable garden. The cost of water might have been equal to the value of the produce I harvested, but it gave me and my children a priceless opportunity to watch it grow from seed to fruit. Interestingly enough, it was my youngest, the four-year-old, who took a particularly keen interest in doing so. Often it is the youngest among us who model such profound openness, awareness, and delight in the mystery of the unfolding of life. For unlike our agrarian predecessors infaith, we tend to forget, perhaps, how fickle are the conditions in which our food grows, and how much we depend on others to provide it. Yet, we still understand, intuitively, the value of embracing the stance of humility in a world where, frankly, we are quite powerless before the forces of nature and fate. Creation-based holidays help us to do so, but I sure hope the church does better to focus our gratitude outside of our own accomplishments – and despite the circumstances – than the larger culture does.

I am aware that many of you might have found it difficult to hear St Paul’s recommendation to the Philippians: our needs never cease, so yes, go ahead and make your requests known to God – but always with thanksgiving. How can we be thankful in advance of having our requests fulfilled, particularly when the outcome of asking seems so uncertain? Or take Ps 100, known as Jubilate Deo from the Latin jubilare “to shout for joy” in its opening line. When was the last time you were truly so jubilant that you wanted to shout? Yet, perhaps this ancient text might help us understand and apply St Paul’s point. It is among the most well-known and beloved psalms, second only to 23 or 95, and part of the Enthronement section of the Psalter that glorifies God as the rule of all creation. A masterpiece despite simplicity: 5 verses, 2 sections that mirror each other in giving 3-4 instructions on expressing praise and a rationale for doing so.

The first 4 instructions are: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; Come before him with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God,” and the rationale: “It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” The next 3 instructions says: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and bless his name,” followed by the second rationale: “For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations”. The action words are deeply meaningful: shout (Hebrew rua - a battle cry! … impossible to do with your hands in the pockets and one eye on the phone!); worship (a word that reflects a blend of worship and service, echoing Jesus words when asked about what work we must do as the people of God); come, know and enter (implying the true intimacy without fear); give thanks and bless (barak related to berak - kneel). Of course, these would all be empty commands if we didn’t have the two rationales: both a relational one - praise God because he makes us and shepherds us, and an ontological one: because God is hesed - lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness - who endures forever. Ok… but the question remains: what if I just “don't feel like it”?

To address this, there's an old story which is every so often offered to seminary students in class discussions. With some variation, it goes more or less as follows: after some years on the job, a medieval priest begins to struggle with his faith and feels a great sense of duplicity in continuing to preach and minister to his flock in light of his persistent doubts. Ready to resign, he brings the matter to his bishop, who tells him that doubts are natural and not to worry, but when the Pope comes, he would be the one to answer every question. Some years go by before the Pope arrives in his area, and the priest continues to question his vocation. Then the day comes when finally, he gets to line up among the multitudes of people vying for the papal blessing, and relates his struggles to the Pope… who leans in to whisper in his ear the only two words of advice: "fake it."

I hope you understand that the point of the story is not for us to pretend to have all the answers, and not to ignore and suppress our intellectual and emotional struggles. But as we go through the seasons of doubt, grief, and discontent, the worst thing we can do is disengage and stop practicing the faith. The ancients have found much wisdom in understanding, intuitively, that we more often act our way into thinking, than we think our way into acting. I certainly prefer this technique of fostering contentment to, for example, comparing your situation with others and declaring that “it could be worse”. This is why Psalm 100 has served for centuries first as the processional chant in ancient Jewish worship, and then as an opening of the traditional liturgy of morning prayer for Christians. Repeating the instructions and rationales laid out in the psalm has helped countless generations of worshipers to anchor their practice of faith during the times when they needed to “fake it”, to see them through to the time when they were able to find more tangible joy in their circumstances. This is not hypocrisy, just basic human psychology. Hopeful? Yes. Challenging? Definitely!

It’s a challenge not unlike that into which St. Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Jesuit order, invited his followers. His most famous quote is, “The goal of our life is to live with God forever.” He conceptualized Christ as one with whom we can laugh and cry, commiserate in sorrow, and rejoice in gladness. And he understood joy as a decision. The decision to see the world as that which is infused with God’s grace and love, and the one that sometimes arises mysteriously, with God’s help. In St Ignatius’ words, “one is to ask for joy with Christ in joy,” which circles right back to St Paul’s idea of maintaining a grateful intent, even as we ask God to give us something more.

And my last point here will be that, every so often, I risk undermining my efforts to find happiness by rejecting it when it comes. Sometimes, it is for a nobler reason of empathy for the less fortunate or some misdirected sense of guilt over how good I have it; but worse is when, at other times, I simply fail to notice its arrival. Ever so practical, St Ignatius has a solution for this too. He sees the smaller gifts in life as reflective of God’s greater desire for us to be happy, and particularly cited the little pleasures that come with the change of seasons as the “built-in” sources of joy. I suppose it fosters an awareness similar to that which comes from celebrating the agricultural feasts, but might be more helpful to us in the urban contexts where we are no longer as connected to the cultivation of plants.

So, this Thanksgiving weekend, let us then go ahead and fully embrace the beauty of the fall, guilt-free: put on the coziest sweater, enjoy the second helping of the pumpkin pie, make that extra batch of hot chocolate, take a walk and enjoy the gorgeous foliage. As we do so, let us intentionally focus on the multitude of small, particular gestures and rituals -- in the church, but much more so in daily life! --that might help us “act our way in” the right stance for worship, rather than waiting to worship and express gratitude when it finally feels “right”. Thanks be to God.