October 25, 2016
Pastor's Points: On Giving Thanks
At the end of the month, we will gather for the Thanksgiving Liturgy. It is one of my favorite liturgies of the year. We have just one bilingual Mass that day, and it brings together a cross section of our parish from all of the other Masses. We come together and give thanks for all that we have, all that we are and we offer that thanks before our loving God. We also offer our financial contributions that are given entirely to the poor and needy, and we offer our bags of food for the IFC Food Pantry. On our national day of thanksgiving when gather around our family table, we first come and give thanks to the Creator for the gift of life, the gift of freedom, the gift of those who surround us that day.
But what if this time of year finds us in a difficult position in life? What if we find it hard to give thanks? In my Thanksgiving homily last year I related the following:
Many of you may be Stephen Colbert fans. He is the new host of the Late Show. He is also a Catholic. I came across an article recently on Colbert and faith, loss and gratitude. The article noted that he used to have a note taped to his computer that read, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.” It might be hard for us think about a comedian focusing on that every day. But if you understand his life’s story it makes sense.
Colbert is the youngest of eleven kids and his father and two of his brothers, Peter and Paul, the two closest to him in age, were killed in a plane crash when he was 10. His elder siblings were all off to school or on with their lives by then, and so it was just he and his mother at home together for years.
He was completely traumatized, of course. And one way of contending with the cruel indifference of the universe is to be indifferent in return. But he was also raised in a deeply Catholic intellectual family (his father had been a dean of Yale Medical School and St. Louis University and the Medical College of South Carolina). And so his rebellion against the world was curiously self-driven and thoughtful. He refused to do anything his teachers required of him, but would come home every day and shut himself in his room and read books. “I had so many books taken away from me,” he said. “I read a book a day. Spent all of my allowance on books. Every birthday, confirmation, Christmas—books, please, stacks of books.”
The urge to be grateful, he said, is not a function of his faith. It’s not “the Gospel tells us” and therefore we give thanks. It is what he has always felt: grateful to be alive. “And so that act, that impulse to be grateful, wants an object. That object I call God. Colbert says: Now, that could be many things. I was raised in a Catholic tradition. I’ll start there. That’s my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”
He was tracing an arc on the table with his fingers and speaking with such deliberation and care. “I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died…. And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way not to be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.
“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.”…
His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”…
It’s our choice, whether to hate something in our lives or to love every moment of them, even the parts that bring us pain. “At every moment, we are volunteers.”
Life is not easy sometimes. Life gets hard. Life changes in an instant. But in the midst of those times can we still find the courage to give thanks? Can we see ourselves as volunteers at every moment? Every life experience forms us in some way for the better or for the worse. It changes us in some way. The moments, the people, the phone calls, the emails, the laughter, the tears have all formed us in some way. It is a gift given to us. And yes, that can be extremely hard to see sometimes especially when a certain moment of a day comes with bad news and life is profoundly changed for us. But we are people of faith and we look at life through that lens. In my own life right now there is a family situation that will change the look, the feel and where I will spend Thanksgiving Day. I will try my hardest to look at that day through the lens of faith, through the lens of Christ and his own suffering for the world’s salvation. I will hopefully be able to place myself as a volunteer that day and every day, ready to see how I will be formed.
It is sometimes difficult to give thanks. Yet, we must find a way. The Mass is our great prayer of thanksgiving, and we come to Mass with all of our burdens, sorrows, and disappointments. We offer those and pray for the grace to strive on as a people of faith and to give thanks for all that we have and all that we offer as we come before the God of all grace.