Common Wisdom: Giving Thanks

The question strikes every believer, becoming more insistent with age. Advancing towards eternity, we take inventory and ask the ultimate: what, if anything, is pleasing about me in the sight of God? Contemporary obsession with self-esteem sinks into oblivion. It matters little what I think of myself. What matters is what God thinks of me, since it is His world I inhabit and it is to Him I return. Is there reason for Him to welcome me?

When it comes to the plus column (remnant from the putative ledger mentality pre-Vatican II), I can confidently record one entry. Only passing fair in other areas, I positively excel at gratitude. No doubt I will scandalize by confessing I say “thank you, Lord” if I’m having a good hair day as well as when the mammogram is negative. It isn’t recorded that Jesus laughed, which is disconcerting. I’m convinced the omission is an oversight. It is noted He wept, well in advance of the current rage to display male sensitivity. If spirits laugh, I suspect I am a source of God’s mirth as I stumble through the decades. I’m sure, however, that my “thank you, Lords” liberally punctuating my days do not pass unnoticed because gratitude counts. He let us know.

I was elated when I first read the biblical passage which told me I already practiced what Jesus revealed as just behavior. In the cure of the ten lepers (Luke 17:1119) only one returns to give thanks. The story has to do with faith, but what is striking is Jesus’ response to the Samaritan. He did not reply with the Aramaic equivalent of “no problem.” He did ask, “Where are the other nine?” That He could perform miracles, a divine attribute, did not satisfy His human nature. The man He was longed for acknowledgment, and gratitude. Forgotten by nine, His disappointment showed.

The challenge of gratitude is to experience it without guilt. It is impossible to live in freedom, to have family, home, and health, and be unaware of those who have only one or none of the above. The media are full of anguished stories and faces, of devastation. One confronts the burden of joy: why am I spared?

The answer may be that present comfort does not forecast the future. I remember my Polish neighbor, jolted from his affluent life in Warsaw by an Austrian madman whose early tirades were reported on the back pages of newspapers. This obscure megalomaniac set into motion historical forces which destroyed my neighbor’s family, confiscated his property, and eventually drove him from his country. It is a shocking script, sobering because its unpredictability suggests personal application. It could happen to me. If, however, at a given moment in time, one is fortunate, it seems ungrateful to appropriate misery in advance.

I count my blessings, starting with the greatest, which cannot be taken, only given away: faith, the crucial, sustaining element in my life, without which life is inexplicable. The gift is ignored by some, returned to sender. For others it is the immutable steady pulse, through otherwise erratic rhythms of human existence. The giver deserves thanks, I seek the source. Unlike the Samaritan, I lack the luxury of finding Jesus in the flesh. But my need was anticipated.

By geographical accident, I live within walking distance of Menlo Park’s Corpus Christi monastery, whose gem of a Gothic chapel is open to the public. Perpetual exposition of the Blessed Sacrament culminates each day with Benediction, after Vespers. Hymns are sung alternately in Latin and English by Dominican nuns, glimpsed behind an open grille. To step into the hushed, narrow nave and advance to the marble sanctuary, to see high in a niche above the altar, flanked on each side by seven candlelit chandeliers, the radiant gold monstrance with its bright white Host, is to experience the connection of the leper. Here it is, God’s encapsulated presence, bequeathed to bewildered apostles at the Last Supper. It is at once simple and stunning to behold.

If it weren’t for transubstantiation, a non-Catholic friend remarked, he would be a Catholic. If it weren’t for transubstantiation, I probably would not. It is the most generous, ingenious invention known to man. Almighty God, pouring His infinity into a finite object. What brilliance—and what accommodation—to place magnitude within our grasp. The heavens attest the majesty of God, but with awe comes a sense of our insignificance, and not a little trepidation. To achieve intimacy man needed something scaled down, something small. And the Son of God, understanding man because He became one of us, closed the gap.

God is everywhere. We can pray anywhere, and we do. If we love, we feel its pervasiveness everywhere and anywhere. Yet the reality is universal that we feel much closer to the person we love, and to reciprocated love, if we have something from the beloved to see, or touch. And who can deny the impact of being in the place where the loved one dwells? Man, because he is man, hungers for sensory gratification, which conveys the nearness spiritual abstraction cannot satisfy. Even the natural splendor of the Grand Canyon, while emotionally affecting, overwhelms by its dimension, and is remote. I do not feel a resonance, a response from it, other than the echo of my own voice. But to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament is to experience the antithesis of alienation. It is to be drenched in divine omnipotence, at once possessing and being possessed. It is acute awareness of the immanence of God, the proximity to sublime assurance.

“Glory be to God for dappled things,” begins Hopkins’ soaring hymn of praise. Yes, and for important things, for trivial things. Most of all for the gift of the giver Himself, which allows me to encounter, while yet alive, the presence of the Lord. Deo gratias.


B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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