Some time ago, I came across a book titled The Book of Irish Curses. The book was intended to be light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek – and in many ways it was. But as one read through the colorful variety of curses, one came to see something negative and destructive at work. Even if one does not believe in the magical power of curses, one can still recognize that curses intend to destroy and tear down, to sow dissension and ruin in the human environment.
The opposite of cursing is blessing. In 1989, the Church produced A Book of Blessings, and, in 2007, a book of Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers. As one reads through their contents, one senses their creative, edifying, and ennobling character.
It has long been recognized that the ability to give thanks is the mark of the truly religious person. Without the sense of thanksgiving, we fail to have openness to God, to others, to our own personal histories, and to the goodness of life itself.
That is why blessing and cursing are more than a matter of words. Both invoke whole attitudes toward life. It does not take much reflection to realize that there is a close relationship between the way we think, the way we speak, and the way we act.
Many people curse themselves without even knowing it when they think, speak about, and evaluate their own lives in negative and pessimistic terms. To say that our personal history has been disastrous and meaningless is to curse it. Whenever we say that the present is pointless and valueless, we have effectively cursed ourselves. Whenever we are hopeless and cynical about the future, we are cursing it in advance – hence already destroying it.
The attitude of blessing and of thanksgiving represents quite a different stance toward life. To have an attitude of blessing is to be able to look at our past and to recognize it as good and fruitful – despite the difficulties and failures. It is to be able to look to the present and, without overlooking the shadow side, to recognize it as worthwhile and creative. To bless is to be able to look to the future and, despite our worries about it, to have an attitude of hope and expectancy.
In the authentic attitudes of blessing and thanksgiving, there is not for a moment any hint of escapism. To bless and give thanks is never a matter of denying the negative sides of life. Far from it; thanksgiving and blessing have great depth to them precisely to the extent that they are often made in the midst of pain and adversity.
Catholics attending Mass on Thanksgiving Day cannot forget that it is precisely to give thanks and to bless that we gather. The very word “eucharist” means literally “thanksgiving.” Nor can we fail to recognize that we give joyful thanks in terms of the Lord’s suffering, death, and resurrection. Thus, on Thanksgiving Day we are invited to avoid an escapist attitude toward the darker side of life, but to have what Lutheran scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “paschal joy” – a joy forged in the crucible of suffering.
To be a people of blessing and thanksgiving – in attitude, word, and, deed – is one description of being a Christian; indeed, of being a religious person of any persuasion. And it is this attitude that we invoke and celebrate on Thanksgiving Day.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.