Posts Tagged ‘Thanksgiving’

For What Should We Be Thankful?

My friend Joe’s trip to the airport the other day was the stuff of nightmares.  He was headed to Detroit by way of Newark, and it was not pretty.  On the way to the airport his car blew out two tires, and the tire shop which he eventually found charged him $600 for replacements.

From the tire shop he continued to the airport by taxi, but by then he had a little cushion because the flight had been delayed thirty minutes.  Finally on the plane and out on the runway, however, one passenger got sick, and it was back to the terminal to let that guy off.  Then the plane taxied out again, only to develop engine problems.  Back to the terminal they went, yet again, and this time everyone got off.  Then at 3:30 pm they cancelled his 9:50 am flight.  Have a nice day.

That was just the beginning of Joe’s travails that day, but this portion of his tale of woe is enough to make a point.  Life does indeed have its major and minor catastrophes, but it’s important always to maintain a sense of perspective, and there’s no better time for that than Thanksgiving Day.

I’m always amazed to meet people who have no sense of how blessed they are.  All too often their daily thanks tend to be of the sort that goes like this:  “There but for the grace of God go I.”  In short, we reference the lowest common denominator of inconvenience or human suffering, and then are grateful that our lives are not worse than they are.  We might even give thanks that life is good because it’s not terrible.  It’s true that we can be grateful for all that, but isn’t there just a little bit more to our lives?  Sure it could be worse, but is there nothing to excite us on Thanksgiving other than a feast, a day away from the routine, and a surfeit of televised sport?  Of course there is, and happily most of us know that.

This Thanksgiving I will pass up the chance to give thanks for great wealth, power or influence.  These have always eluded my grasp anyway, and to be honest I’ve never spent the bulk of my energy trying to acquire them.  Instead I will rely on the tried and true items for which I tend to be grateful on a fairly regular basis.

First off, I give thanks for life and for parents who cared enough to provide me a home and share their values.  I give thanks for friends, who really are a gift from God and aren’t something you can buy at the store.  I give thanks for enough material goods to keep me going, but not so many that they take over my life and distort my vision of myself and reality.  And then I’ll give thanks for the faith which others have shared so generously with me.  Faith is a pretty intangible thing, but it’s been the key ingredient that’s given me direction when I’ve been lost at sea.  It’s provided the reason to go on in those moments when life can seem pointless.

This year I’ll also give thanks for those simple words of encouragement that have made all the difference in the world to me, since childhood.  Generous people scarcely realize the good they can do when they offer a kind word or point out the talent they see in others.  Often they never know what such a simple gesture can accomplish.  But it happens, and it happens far more than you might imagine.

This Thanksgiving one last-minute addition will make the list, and it’s this:  it’s the awareness that I can and ought to do better, and that I still have some time to do it.

On the day that Joe didn’t go to Detroit, I was at the airport grousing about how it was taking forever for the shuttle to get from the terminal to the car rental facility.  Then I was cranky because people couldn’t get off the bus fast enough.  And then there was the long line at the counter, filled with people who seemed never to have rented a car before.  Could life possibly get any worse than this?  Two hours later I read Joe’s email and realized it could.

On Thanksgiving I’m not going spend time being grateful that my travel experience was not as horrible as Joe’s.  Rather, I plan to be grateful for the ability to put things into perspective.  Besides, I should know better than to pray for a seamless travel experience in life when there are other things of far greater import.

So this Thanksgiving I’ll express gratitude for friends and faith, but I’ll also give thanks for the good sense that lets me rank these things first in my life.  On any given day, they are even more important than an on-time departure and arrival.


+On November 17th I presided and preached at the abbey Mass.

+On November 17th and 18th I attended meetings of the Trustees of Saint John’s Univesity.  Unfortunately, they were cut short by an impending storm, which materialized on the morning of the 18th.  It was our first serious freeze of the winter, and we got all of four inches of snow.

+Beginning on the evening of November 18th, and continuing through to the 19th and 20th, I gave a retreat to members of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta, gathered at Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House, located north of Dallas, TX.

+The topmost photo in today’s post is a glimpse into the garden greenhouse.  There a selection of squash, raised in our garden, prepare for storage in the abbey’s cellars.  My friend Larry Haeg happened to take this beautiful photo, and I am grateful for his willingness to let me make use of such a lovely fall portrait.

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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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The Abbey Gardens

What do you want for Thanksgiving?

As many stores prepare to open on Thanksgiving Day, a few people wonder whether someday the Christmas season will gobble up this holiday entirely. Will historians a century from now theorize that this annual festival of football and merchandising had its roots in a moment of collective gratitude? Quite possibly.

In recent years I’ve had a bit of unease about this holiday, and not because we shouldn’t give thanks for blessings received. Rightly, we should be grateful to live in liberty, to dwell in a land of immense beauty and wealth, and to have basements and garages bulging with stuff that the pilgrims could only dream of. But what about all those people who don’t share in this bounty? Does God not favor them? Does God like us better?

Last week a friend of mine asked me about the parable of the talents, and he wondered if we’ve been reading it in the wrong way. Had the guy who had ten talents lost five of them, would the master have been just as angry as he was with the guy who had one, risked nothing, and neither gained nor lost anything? My friend thought not, and for a very novel reason.

We’ve tended to equate the talents with money or some sort of personal gifts. But what if we thought of them as challenges? What if God actually blesses us with obstacles that are too much to overcome? What if God lets us encounter challenges that are scarcely more than we can bear? That might help explain why bad things happen to good people.

We’ve all fantasized about a life of comfort and ease, one in which everything is handed to us on a silver platter. Conversely, I know I’m not the only one who’s prayed that tough predicaments will go away. Even Jesus prayed that His cup of suffering would pass. But He accepted His cup, and I suppose His is a good example for us all.

As much as we all might prefer the life of Riley, we know all too well what happens when you never have to work or struggle for anything. Without struggle there is no growth. Without hurdles to overcome, there is no sense of accomplishment. Without mighty effort or even a bit of suffering, we uncover neither our own limits nor our own true gifts. Without the supreme personal test, we never learn to stretch or flourish, despite everything.

It might be helpful, then, to turn that parable on its head. Imagine the servant who received ten talents as a symbol of all those who face frightful circumstances in life, and yet rise dramatically to face the occasion. Imagine the servant with one talent as representative of those who face little or no challenge, and who avoid personal risk at all cost. In which servant is true character to be found?

Saint Paul speaks of fighting the good fight and finishing the race, and by that I understand that he tried to meet every challenge that came his way. He wasted not a minute, not an opportunity, not a difficulty. And Saint Benedict takes the same approach when he speaks of monks enduring in the monastery until death. It is a race of discovery.

It’s in that vein that we might consider our own soul-searching this Thanksgiving. Are we grateful that the past year was easy beyond our wildest dreams? Were we able to coast — and not to grow in the process? Or are we thankful that we faced challenges of every stripe, and with God’s help we at least tried to face them with a grain of nobility? If we did the latter, we can thank God this Thanksgiving for the greatest of gifts: we’ve grown not only in age, but in wisdom.


On November 15th I celebrated the Eucharist for the semi-annual meeting of the members of the Order of Malta in San Francisco. I have included the sermon, Holy, or Holier than Thou?, under Presentations.

On November 19th it snowed six inches at Saint John’s. It was our first snow of the season, and I simply did not have the heart to include a picture of the snow in this posting. After all, I had just returned from San Francisco, and it is Thanksgiving.

On November 17th Dr. Theresa Vann of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library delivered a paper entitled Catholic Pirates: A Revisionist Look at the Hospitallers of Rhodes and Malta. She is the Joseph S. Micallef Curator of the Malta Study Center at HMML, and she oversees the vast archives of the Order of Malta on film and in digital form at HMML. She is pictured here with Mr. Charles Farrugia of the National Library of Malta.

In her talk Dr. Vann made an important point in stressing labels as reflections of political attitudes and propaganda. To western Europeans the galleys of the Order of Malta in the Mediterranean carried crusaders. In the eyes of the Turks, they carried Catholic pirates.

Of course that game goes on endlessly. For centuries the Byzantines and Arabs both thought of the Turks as barbarians. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the Turks became the powers-that-be, and all who opposed them were terrorists. Needless to say, that sentiment was not shared by the Arabs who joined with Lawrence of Arabia to drive out the Turks in the early twentieth century. As is often noted, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Charles Dickens: Pictures from Italy

I thought I knew all of the books of Charles Dickens, and that I had read most of them in high school. But recently I stumbled across one I had not known: Pictures from Italy. It recounts Dickens’ sojourn through Italy in the early 1840’s, and you may be surprised to discover that even then Italy was “ill-governed”, as Dickens commented. But he loved the place, the people and the food. What Englishman wouldn’t!

His description of Holy Week in Rome is particularly interesting, and I close with a long excerpt for the benefit of all those who have been caught in crushing crowds of tourists in the Vatican. In the following passage he describes a ceremony immediatley following the Holy Thursday foot-washing, at which the pope hosts the Thirteen at a dinner in the Vatican.

“As the two large boxes, appropriated to ladies at this sight, were full to the throat, and getting near was hopeless, we posted off, along with a great crowd, to be in time at the Table, where the Pope, in person, waits on those Thirteen; and after a prodigious struggle at the Vatican staircase, and several personal struggles with the Swiss guard, the whole crowd swept into the room. The body of the room was full of male strangers; the crowd immense; the heat very great; and the pressure sometimes frightful. It was at its height, when the stream came pouring in, from the feet-washing; and then were there such shrieks and outcries, that a party of Piedmontese dragoons went to the rescue of the Swiss guard, and helped them to calm the tumult.

“The ladies were partucularly ferocious, in their struggles for places. One lady of my acquaintance was siezed round the waist, in the ladies box, by a strong matron, and hoisted out of her place; and there was another lady (in a back row in the same box) who improved her position by sticking a large pin into the ladies before her.”

May your Thanksgiving table have more decorum!

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