A Thanksgiving Reflection
Several years ago I had the occasion to attend Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. It just so happened that Cardinal O’Connor was the celebrant, and I’d never heard him speak before. By then he had earned a reputation for being gruff and straightforward, and so I was curious to know what might be his next target for some sharp words.
For the life of me I no longer recall the theme of his sermon. I’m sure he had one, but it’s not what anyone talked about afterward. What we did remember was the baby who screamed and cried as soon as the cardinal had climbed into the pulpit to preach. The crying was awful. Actually, it was worse than awful. The cries that echoed through the vast expanse of the cathedral were excruciating. They plucked at everyone’s nerves, and we all sat there paralyzed, wondering when someone would finally do something about it. And most of all, we wondered what the cardinal would do about it.
Cardinal O’Connor tried his best to ignore the screaming, but he finally had to throw in the towel. In mid-sentence he just stopped, looked up from his notes, and glared out across the congregation. I held my breath, half-expecting him to lash out at the ushers to demand that they do something. But to our stunned surprise, the cardinal surrendered to the obvious. “I’m sure by now everyone’s listening to that baby more than to me,” he said. “But isn’t that child what this is really all about? And I have to tell you in all honesty, I’ve heard worse comments about my sermons before this. So let’s just be grateful for the presence of this innocent life in our midst, even if it’s not what we came here to hear.”
His words cut through the tension, and they brought down the house. Laughter and applause filled the church, and that’s all that I can remember from our hour of worship together that Sunday morning.
On Thanksgiving Day it’s quite natural for us to consider all the things for which we should be grateful. All the same, I think there is often the temptation to focus on the material and to thank God for a life in which everything seems to be going our way. We have enough to eat; we have adequate housing; we have people in our lives for whom we care and who care about us. We are safe; we are educated; and our lives seem reasonably predictable. In short, we feel content because of a life that is blessedly bourgeois, and for that lack of danger and challenge we give thanks.
That attitude comes awfully close to turning Thanksgiving into a feast that is all about us. In the tradition of lifting ourselves up by the bootstraps, in the first breath we can thank God for the talents God has give us, and in the next breath pat ourselves on the back for the way we’ve used them so well. God may have blessed us to start with, but we’ve relied on our own initiative to take it from there.
We can also run the risk of reducing Thanksgiving and our very lives to a material interpretation We are what we have, and we have because we’ve worked hard and earned it all by ourselves. But before we congratulate ourselves for our own initiative, it’s important to take a proper inventory of all of our blessings.
For starters, none of us willed ourselves into being. Our parents gave us life, and they nurtured us. We live in houses that other people built. Most of us eat food that other people grew; we wear clothes that other people made; we studied in schools that other people started; and we work in companies that other people got going.
But that’s just the material side of things, and our list of debts to others can never end there. More than anything else we ought to be grateful that people expect significant things from us. We should be thankful that people challenge us and ask the best of us. We should not be stunned that people would expect to see the face of Christ in us. In short, we should be most thankful that people ask us to keep growing, even though there are plenty of times when we’d rather stop and count our blessings and be done with it.
On Thanksgiving Day there’s lots to be thankful for; but perhaps most of all we should be grateful that people keep reminding us of all that’s left for us to do. There’s much growth that remains ahead of us. There’s growth that will stretch and challenge us.
Saint Benedict reminds us that wisdom comes to us from a variety of sources, and sometimes even from the youngest and least-expected people in our midst. Many years ago, in the middle of a sermon, Cardinal O’Connor had to come to terms with that, and he used the youngest person in the crowd as an occasion to give thanks for the strange ways in which God appears in our lives. It strikes me that the greatest gift we have from God is the gift of brothers and sisters who nudge us out of complacency; who push us to further growth; who remind us every now and again that God creates us all to be gifts to one another. There are no greater gifts to be thankful for.
+On Monday November 16 I spoke to about a hundred members of the staff and faculty of Saint John’s University in a talk on “Building Community — One Person at a Time.” It was sponsored by the Benedictine Institute at Saint John’s.
+Last week I flew to London for a meeting, and fortunately I had some time afterward to visit a few favorite spots. Among them was Westminster Cathedral, where I attended Mass on Sunday. The cathedral’s choir of men and boys is over the top great, and it has dozens of cd’s to its credit. Westminster is also the resting place of Cardinal Basil Hume, the abbot of Ampleforth who later because archbishop. He was in every respect an extraordinary man.
Westminster Cathedral is a rather odd building, with a nod to the Byzantine and a touch of the modern. It was built at the turn of the century, and it remains half-completed. If you want to see a cross-section of what a classical Roman building was like, this is the place to go. The lower half of the church is faced with colorful marble, while the upper portion is the original red brick. Among my favorite elements in the building are the Stations of the Cross, done by the revered calligrapher and designer Eric Gill.