Archive for November 19th, 2012

Thanksgiving: Thanks for What?

How could this have happened?  This thought gripped most of us monks as we filed into church that Thanksgiving morning.  Somebody had assigned Fr. Arthur to preach at the Mass for Thanksgiving Day, and not a few of the monks wondered aloud at the wisdom of this.  Long ago Fr. Arthur had achieved the status of “senior crank” in the community, and he had held the title unchallenged for years.  Our fears were not groundless.

Collegville landscape

What made it worse was the presence of so many first-time visitors in the congregation.  As a visitor myself, I should not have cared about what those people might think.  But I did.  After all, if Fr. Arthur went out and embarrassed himself, we’d all be tarred with the same brush.  No one would stay behind long enough for me to explain that I too was merely a visitor.  No, if Arthur came off as a crackpot, then none of us monks would be spared the same verdict.  I did not want a churchful of strangers to think that I too was a nut case; so I had as much at stake as the local monks.

Arthur’s opening words of the sermon did not disappoint.  “Today is Thanksgiving.  Thanks for what?” he barked out.  The latter, of course, was a rhetorical question, and his tone made clear that he intended to answer without the help of anybody in the congregation. That’s what we monks were afraid of, and we prepared for ten minutes that would seem like an hour.  And we began to plot our revenge on the monk who had assigned this guy.

But Arthur surprised us.  In fact, he stunned us by putting his cynicism to very good use.  He began by explaining how — in his mind at least — Thanksgiving had become the autumnal counterpart to the 4th of July.  “We gather to thank God that we are such a great people.  We thank God that we are prosperous and powerful and free.  We thank God that we are a city set upon a mountaintop for all the world to admire and emulate.  And we celebrate by eating way too much and watching football.”  These are not bad things, he conceded, “but they’re not what we should be thanking God for today.”

“I know wealthy people who are miserable; and I know poor people who are happy,” he went on.  Neither wealth nor poverty guarantee anythng.  Nor do power or powerlessness.  None of these things matter one whit when it comes to the value of a human being. And to thank the Almighty as if these were the best things that God had to offer is to sell God short.  These are not the gifts that God gives to distinguish between the most favoured and the least favoured.  This is not how God operates, and we shouldn’t give God credit where credit is not due.

“So for what should we be thanking God today?”  Well, it shouldn’t be for the usual things.  He then went on to list several items that I won’t repeat.  But a few I still recall well.  First off, we must thank God for the gift of our own life.  That’s even more important than the privilege of shopping or paying low prices for everything.  We should thank God for challenges.   That’s even more important than having everything in life handed to us on a silver platter.  We should thank God for the chance to make a difference in someone’s life.  That’s even more important than being left to mind my own business and care only about my own life and comfort.

Needless to say, nobody who knew Fr. Arthur expected that sort of thing from him, and least of all on Thanksgiving Day.  To our utter amazement he had put his natural cynicism to good use; and we discovered that the bedrock of his life was a deep faith in God.  God had become the measure of all things in his life, and we had never guessed it.

Sydney in springtime: Jacaranda in bloom

For what should we thank God this Thanksgiving Day?  Well, in the spirit of Fr. Arthur, I don’t plan to spend much time thanking God for prosperity and security and fire-sale prices at the mall.  Nor will I thank God for more abundance than I can handle, and for more opportunities than I can possibly take advantage of.  No, this year I think I will thank God for the really big things.  I will thank God for the chance to live.  I plan to thank God for the challenges that come into my life, even if I don’t always appreciate them.  And I plan to thank God for the chance to make a difference in someone else’s life — even if I don’t always do a good job of it.  These things are what matter to me this Thanksgiving; and the rest of the year I can be grateful for God’s lesser gifts.

None of us expected much from Fr. Arthur that day, and in fact we expected the worst.  We all thought we would sweat bullets that morning.  But we were wrong; and, ironically, once again Fr. Arthur had gotten the better of his confreres.

Fr. Arthur has long since passed away; but if he were here today I’d thank him, along with God.  And I’d thank him specifically for the only Thanksgiving sermon that I’ve ever remembered.

Sydney: view from my room

+A Personal Note: Australia remembered

On Thursday of last week I returned to the United States from a week in Australia.  While the flight seemed like thirteen hours to me, it actually took minus six hours to accomplish.  We left Sydney shortly after noon, and at 6 am the same day, six hours earlier, we arrived in Los Angeles.  Needless to say, the flight did not leave any of us feeling any younger, despite the six hours we had gained.

I’m not in the habit of giving vacation recommendations, but Sydney was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.  And the people are among the most hospitable I’ve ever met.  My room overlooked the Opera house, which deserves its great reputation for design.  The iconic bridge dominates the city, while the harbor’s tentacles create a wonderfully intricate shoreline.  The trains are great, even if the locals complain about their timeliness.  But it was great fun to take the ferry to meet with my hosts from Australian Catholic University.

Australian Catholic University: view from seminar room

I also was reminded of the need to be well-behaved, wherever you may go.  At the Melbourne campus of Australian Catholic University I was surprised to meet a former student of mine from Saint John’s, who now works on the staff of the University.  Later, the plane trip back to the United States provided further evidence of the need to be at your best in public — always.  Three hours into the flight I got up to walk around the plane a bit.  Four rows back were two friends from Saint Cloud, MN.  What are the odds of meeting some neighbors from Minnesota on a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles?  I don’t know.  I’m a history major, so I don’t have to know the odds.  But I’ve learned my lessons well.

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