Are they all staring at you, waiting? Maybe you’re the family matriarch or patriarch or simply the host of this here meal.
They are gathered around the Thanksgiving Day table. The ceremonious feast is to begin. But, first, on this day specifically set aside for public acknowledgment of divine goodness, someone better lead the pre-meal prayer.
Tag, you’re it! Quick, before the gravy congeals!
You look around the table. With regard to theological matters, objective reality and the reasons for all of existence, you might have to maneuver through a slalom course of sensibilities. You might fear uttering words that will land with a thud, like unexploded ordnance. For that matter, you might equally fear uttering words that will land like exploding ordnance.
You might recognize that some who are gathered certainly are of the “prayer-free” variety, those who can’t square the notion of a benevolent creator with a world sodden in so much injustice and suffering.
You might surmise that, for others around the table, until a burning bush starts providing some clarity or, say, the Stockbridge Bowl parts down the middle to provide safe passage to affordable housing, their juries remain out on the existence of a supreme being.
Maybe you see your elder relative over there who threw her arms up years ago and, for quiet, cogent reasons, now allows God to be her rudder, no more questions asked.
She might have been talking to the grandchildren earlier about those Pilgrims so many years ago. How, in 1620, they had aimed for the nicer climate and rich topsoil of Virginia but instead got shoved off course and into the cold, rock-strewn wilderness of New England, where they froze their butts off, built shelters, procured food and … and … showed gratitude to the lord.
Like all national holidays, Thanksgiving necessitates an action. In this case: Give thanks. There’s no clear path around it.
And “God bless the world. Amen, let’s eat!” probably won’t cover it. That’s the ‘Gentleman’s C’ of prayers, geared to maximize metaphysical productivity while minimizing the outlay of earnestness.
And so in this awkward moment before the chowing down begins, you, dear deputized leader of this Thanksgiving Day prayer, must say something — and not just anything.
Know that you’re not alone. Today, from sea to shining sea, the nation will ring with wobbly, discomfited entreaties to the divine. Can we get a hallelujah?
Four things to know
First, let’s acknowledge the matter:
“Yeah, it’s a tough gig,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Goodman, pastor of the United Church of Christ in Monterey and Church on the Hill in Lenox.
Second, let’s aim for an ideal:
“Be sincere. Be for real,” said Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch, of Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington.
Third, no doubt, it’d be best for everyone at the table if you could at least try to tailor your words to your audience.
“That kind of goes without saying,” said Jim Gordon, an ordained monk in the Zen tradition, of Hardscrabble Zendo in Sheffield. “I mean, the historical Buddha was well known for that.”
Fourth, yes, leading the Thanksgiving Day prayer can be an uncomfortable moment for those who don’t live and breathe the work of making public petitions to a higher power. Still, “it can be a beautiful moment, as well,” said the Most Rev. William D. Byrne, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield.
With that all said, we offer a potluck of prayer advice. Take what you need. Leave the rest.
What if you're not a believer?
Goodman, for one, suggests that you give yourself a moment to think about whom you are addressing in your giving of thanks.
“Do you trust that there is a benevolent will at work and that you can enter into a spirit of gratitude that is relational?” she said.
If you do, she said, go for it: Pray to that God, the giver of all graces. But, what if you're not certain?
Considering that this day, Thanksgiving, was set aside specifically to give thanks to a supreme being, Goodman suggests that it wouldn’t be harmful to “pretend.” More specifically, she suggests that you imagine such a creator “who is love itself.”
Then, she said, consider: “What would you give thanks to that God for? What would you say to that God? What would you actually hope for in the creator of the universe? Maybe that's what God is, and so, for a moment, talk to that God.”
Do prayers work?
No surprise that Hirsch, of Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, advocates prayer for the simple reasons that it forces us to slow down and acknowledge the moment, “and it adds an intentionality” to the gathering.
Not to mention: Prayers work, he said.
He referenced a quote from the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said: “Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.”
Prayers, Hirsch said, “are expressions of our inner longings and our desires and our recognition of the way that the world is and how it can be and the gap between the two. I pray at least that God gives us the strength, the courage, the bravery, the clarity and everything in between to be able to do our part to be actors for good in this world. And, so, prayer can reenergize and can inspire, and in that way, I think it works.”
A prayer sneak preview?
Like many people, if not most, Gordon, the ordained monk from Sheffield, said he will be hosting friends for Thanksgiving who don’t share the same theological beliefs.
Yes, of course, he will lead a prayer before the meal. No, he’s not concerned. He plans to express sentiments — true to his heart — that would not rub anyone the wrong way, whether they are people of faith or not.
Can he give a sneak preview of his Thanksgiving Day prayer? Yes, gladly.
“We give thanks for this food, in order to support our bodies, and we're supporting our bodies in order to work for the benefit of all beings,” he said. “It'll be like that.”
He points out that, for Buddhists, “there's no big God up in the sky. What there is, is a process at work, and we're all part of the process, so, you're actually giving thanks for being a part of the process.”
Part of his process today will be picking up some pies from a bakery in Lakeville, Conn.
"They make a pecan pie that is quite outstanding," he said.
A song and a psalm in his heart
Bishop Byrne has participated in enough interfaith gatherings to understand the difficulty some might have in leading a Thanksgiving Day prayer.
“I’m often asked to lead grace or some kind of a blessing or prayer in situations where you have multiple faith denominations or, you know, not everyone's on the same page, and you certainly don't want prayer to make people feel uncomfortable, you know?” he said. “That’s sort of the opposite of its point.”
He has two pieces of advice.
First, to all those pressed to the task of leading the prayer, get your game face on.
“An attitude of gratitude is the way to a happy life,” he said. “If you recognize that all is ‘gift’ and the moment that we have is the only thing that we really, truly have, the more that we cherish that moment and cherish the people in it, the more alive we are.”
Second, he said, in terms of leading a prayer, consider singing. Really? Really.
“I'll just start singing ‘This little light of mine. I'm gonna let it shine,’ and people start to dig it,” Byrne said.
“The Psalms were basically songs. So, if you have a more religious group, a go-to for me is Psalm 100. It's a nice, short one, but it's filled with thanksgiving.
"If I have a mixed group," he said, "you can do something like ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ One of the things that it does is, it makes people relax right away. So, that's my little secret. It’s yours now.”