Thanksgiving’s cosmic poetics and joyful sorrow

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Thanksgiving in America is notable as a holiday that is a gerund, as well as a national feast. But on the ancient Christian calendar, there are others older and more cosmopolitan with a gerund-meaning: Pascha (Greek for Passover, from Jewish tradition, although the Orthodox Christian Easter), the passing-over; Nativity (Christmas), which involves process and action as well, the birthing or coming forth; the Eucharist, or giving of thanks, at every Liturgy, and particularly on the Eighth Day of Resurrection. Just so the Greek ktisis, as English “creation,” means both active ongoing process and state. So a cosmic poetics of thanks embraces, in effect, wave and particle, a plexity of time and beyond-time. Thus Edmund Spenser, influenced by the Greek patristics studied in Cambridge at the dawn of the English Reformation, ended his Mutabilitie Cantos and The Fairie Queene: O thou great Sabbaoth God, graunt me that Sabaoths sight (Sabbaoth as hosts or dynamic activity, and Sabaoth as Sabbath-rest)

In our Russian and American home, we had at our Thanksgiving breakfast today a discussion of both the Orthodox Christian Akathist of Thanksgiving and the American Thanksgiving. The former is often attributed to Protopresbyter Gregory Petrov, because of a copy in his belongings when he died in a Soviet prison camp in 1943, although it is now usually attributed to Metropolitan Tryphon, who wrote it in Soviet Russia in 1929. The confusion is understandable, because only handwritten copies circulated in the gulag underground until the 1970s. As background notes from the Ancient Faith Radio CD of the English version explain:

Since the fall of Communism, the Church – and the entire world – has been made aware of the crimes against humanity committed in Russia and the former Soviet Union for the cause of atheist “revolution.” An estimated 45 million people were slaughtered out of a programmed hatred and paranoia. Terror, betrayal, distrust, isolation, self-preservation, hopelessness and faithlessness defined the God-less Bolshevik order. We honor those Christians who refused to compromise their faith in Jesus Christ – hundreds of thousands of names, some known, though most known only to God – as Passion-bearers, New Martyrs, and Saints. Metropolitan Tryphon ([Prince] Boris Petrovich Turkestanov, 1861-1934) was one of the venerable hierarchs and spiritual pillars of the Orthodoxy whose words and prayers supported Christians during these terrible and violent persecutions. In the 1920-30s, his word was a word of the law for all the faithful surviving this chaos and spiritual insanity of the country. For his remarkable gift of word and sermon, Metropolitan Tryphon was often called the Moscow Chrysostom. In 1929, Metropolitan Tryphon wrote “The Akathist of Thanksgiving” which has become his spiritual legacy. The words of the hymn “Glory to God for All Things” gave the Church and the world light from great darkness, reminding us that even in the midst of frightful suffering true Christian conviction and courage are unconquerable.

This Akathist grows from the last words of St. John Chrysostom: “Glory to God for all things.” I read these passages aloud this morning while telling the story of the Akathist:

Kontakion 2

O Lord, how lovely it is to be Thy guest. Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds. All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness. Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Thy love. Blessed art thou, mother earth, in thy fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last for ever, in the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, the cry rings out: Alleluia!

Ikos 2

Thou hast brought me into life as into an enchanted paradise. We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing. We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams. We have tasted fruit of fine flavour and the sweet-scented honey. We can live very well on Thine earth. It is a pleasure to be Thy guest.

Glory to Thee for the Feast Day of life
Glory to Thee for the perfume of lilies and roses
Glory to Thee for each different taste of berry and fruit
Glory to Thee for the sparkling silver of early morning dew
Glory to Thee for the joy of dawn’s awakening
Glory to Thee for the new life each day brings
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

Then we talked about what the boys knew of the American Thanksgiving story from school, about how many Native Americans are wary of the holiday, but also of how it included memory both of a group of people seemingly at the end of their rope in arriving at a new land, giving thanks to God, and of at least a moment of transcendent love and help between them and Native peoples. The philosopher Roger Scruton writes on this in his Green Philosophy as a bittersweet expression of what he calls ecophilia or “love of home,” a motivating force in protecting the Earth: “The self-consciousness of America, which has chosen Thanksgiving as its national feast, returning to that first apologetic [in multiple senses?] attempt of the Pilgrim Fathers to find acceptance among the Native Americans from whom their descendants were to steal the land, has its roots in the concern with home.” But Thanksgiving even there, even in the gulag, in any language and country, opens a cosmic poetics of wonder, a synergy of agapasm (to borrow Charles Peirce’s term), as does the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address: “For all the love that is still around us, we gather together our minds as one and send our choicest words and greetings and thanks to the Creator.”  Thanksgiving goes beyond induction and deduction, through our sorrow and pain, and back up into a personal experience of love that transfigures us into joyful sorrow.


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