I’d like to address the subject of thanksgiving from a point of view you may find unusual. Really what I want to say is that if we trust God as we should, there’s a lot more to thank God for than we normally find worthy of gratitude. Many of you have heard of C.S. Lewis. Your children may have read his Chronicles of Narnia, and many people I know who’ve read Mere Christianity have told me they considered it, perhaps, the best book they ever read in their lives.
Well here’s something interesting about C.S. Lewis you may not know. Although he wasn’t a Catholic, he carried on a long-running correspondence with an Italian priest. Lewis didn’t speak Italian, and the priest didn’t speak English, so they corresponded in Latin, the one language they shared in common and in which they were both fluent. In the course of their correspondence, Lewis wrote this: “We ought to give thanks for all fortune: if it is good, because it is good, if it is bad, because it works in us patience, humility, and the contempt of the world and the hope of our eternal country.”
The lives of many of the saints illustrate Lewis’ contention. St. Marie-Therese de Soubiran, e.g., who lived in 19th century France, was accused by a jealous nun of grossly mismanaging their religious order. The bishop believed these false charges and removed Mother Marie-Therese from her convent, to which she was never permitted to return. Toward the end of her life, she wrote to a friend: “The great truth that God is all and the rest nothing becomes the life of the soul, and upon it one can lean securely amid the incomprehensible mysteries of this world. . . . Should I have learned this without such cruel anguish? I do not think so.”
In my own life, I can testify personally to a mysterious truth to which many others who have undergone similar trials will bear witness. It’s this: As terrible as war is, as unspeakable as its conditions are and the things one sees and endures and is made to do in it, as much as all sane people pray for peace and an end to all war, having lived through one as a soldier, with other soldiers, I wouldn’t give up the experience for anything in the world. I wouldn’t recommend it or wish it on anybody, but I thank God not just for getting me through it but for entrusting the experience to me. I can say the same thing for just about every painful experience I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t be who I am without the scars. I make a poor enough show of it as it is, but I’d be even worse were it not for the many things I’ve been through and because of what I took to be unanswered prayers.
So thanks be to God this day, not just for sunshine but for rain, for good fortune and for bad, for health and for sickness, for success and failure, for plenty and want, for love and bereavement, healing and scars. Thanks for the gift of life with all its light and shadow. With the eyes of faith, we can see that it’s given to take the clay of which we’re made and mold us into something that sunshine and smooth sailing alone could never produce. Scripture tells us that our Lord learned obedience through what he suffered. If Christ, the only begotten Son of God, in his human nature, could learn depths of obedience from suffering, what might we, poor banished children of Eve, not learn by bearing our crosses?
C.S. Lewis was right: We ought to give thanks for all fortune, good and bad, because it’s all part of the path that leads to eternal life. If we get as good at giving thanks as we should, maybe someday we’ll be able to say with St. Catherine of Siena, who lived in the plague-ridden 14th century, “All the way to heaven is heaven.” Thanks be to God for heaven, and all that gets us there. Thanks for all fortune, good and bad. Thanks be to God, who knows what he permits and why her permits it. Amen.
John Paul II once said that Mother Teresa’s should be the face the Church presents to the world. She built her life around the Gospel, two passages in particular: (1) Jesus’ words from the Cross, “I Thirst.” She interpreted this as meaning not that Jesus thirsted for water but for us and our love, and she determined to live her life in such a way that Jesus’ thirst would be quenched. (2) Today’s gospel, Jesus’ dramatic portrait of the Last Judgment, the sheep on one side, the goats on the other, the former destined for heaven, the latter for hell, all based on how they treated others, which, Jesus said, amounts to how they treated him. Mother Teresa liked to say that when we stand before the Just Judge, he will take us by the hand and count out on our five fingers, “You—Did—It—To--Me.”
That’s quite a challenge, but it should also be an inspiration, and, let’s face it, we need all the inspiration we can get in this crazy world. We’d like to think that kindness, charity, and self-sacrifice come naturally to everyone, but by so thinking, we ignore innate human selfishness and ego-centricity. We ignore, too, that we’re heirs to two thousand years of Christian teaching and the Christian example of the saints, imagining that these are superfluous, that we’re all born naturally inclined to be the sheep in Jesus’ parable. It’s so naïve. It’s so dangerous. Ultimately it’s the death of faith, hope, and love.
The great American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, got it just right when he said that “We’re born broken; we live by mending; the grace of God is the glue.” Or to put it otherwise, we’re born tribal; we’re born selfish; we’re born acting as though we were the center of the universe, as though we were king or queen of all. And it’s a life’s work to put Christ in the center and get ourselves out, and we need all the help, reminders, and inspiration we can get to pull it off. That’s what the Church is for. That’s why Christ founded it. That’s why He preserves it in spite of all its flaws.
The Church is here to proclaim Christ King, to remind us, inspire us, help us to keep Him King, not ourselves. Only in Him do we really know who God is and what He’s like. Only in Him do we really understand who we are and what we’re called to be. Only in Him do we rightly grasp the true nature of love. We’re not born with the knowledge of these things. That knowledge is not out there like the air we breathe. We get it from Jesus and His Church. If we abandon them, if we take them lightly, treating them nonchalantly, if we fail to take seriously their reminders, their inspirations, their help, our default position is not Christ-like purity, kindness, generosity, and self-sacrifice.
It may seem as if it is for a while, just as cut flowers can continue to look beautiful for a while, but cut off from their roots and nourishment, they’re doomed, and cut off from Christ and His Church, either through outright rejection or casual neglect, our faith, hope, and love will eventually fade and fail.
Today’s Feast reminds us of who the center of the universe is, who ought to be the center of our lives, and of how we’ll be judged by Christ the King. You Did It To Me. I don’t know about you, but I need all the help I can get.
I don’t know if any of you are J.R.R. Tolkien fans, but even if you’ve never read any of his books, you’ve probably heard of the movies based on his books that came out a few years ago. His Lord of the Rings Trilogy is one of the great literary epics of all time. There are those who would say that Tolkien wrote some of the most beautiful and profound words ever put to paper. Fr. Joseph Fessio, a Jesuit and founder of Ignatius Press, was once asked what books, other than the Bible, he’d take with him if he knew he were going to be stranded on a desert island. He shocked his interviewer by responding unhesitatingly The Lord of the Rings.
In the middle of the first volume of this great epic, the central character, a diminutive creature named Frodo, weighed down and wearied under the burden of his terrible mission, says to his friend Gandalf, a wise old wizard, “I wish I had never lived to see these times.” And Gandalf replies very gently, “We all feel like that now and then, but the times in which we live are not ours to choose; we can only choose what we’ll do with the times we’ve been given.”
Today’s readings are about the choices we make concerning what to do with the times and other circumstances we’re given. The woman praised in the Book of Proverbs is praised precisely because, given the times in which she lived, she made the right choices. Life for those around her—her husband and family, the poor and needy—was better and more blessed for her being more concerned with their welfare than with her own vanity.
In our second reading, St. Paul explicitly talks about times and seasons and the coming of the Lord like a thief in the night, but says that we have nothing to fear if we live as children of the light, walking in the way of the Lord.
Jesus, for his part, tells one of his famous parables, this one about the effective and Godly use of the gifts and talents we’re given. He’s not giving advice on financial investments, although these too can be made and used in Godly ways; he’s telling us that we’ve been given time, talent, and treasure to be invested wisely, for the glory of God and the good of each other, and that we’ll be judged on how well we make use of the things He’s given us. Do we squander His gifts? Do we use them chiefly to make life easier for ourselves? Or do we, like the woman in Proverbs, use what God has given us to bring blessings on others?
To put it another way, do we treat life like a pilgrimage on which we help one another on our journey to God, or like a vacation on which the needs of others are perceived as interfering with our enjoyment?
The message of today’s liturgy is that we are pilgrims, not tourists in this life, that we each have a mission (which is our reason for being here) to be blessings to each other, that we’re called to pray more than to play, to serve more than to be served, to give more than to receive.
My little friend Frodo and his friend Gandalf were part of a fellowship, “the fellowship of the ring.” The odds against them seemed overwhelming, their chance of success or victory almost nil, but success or victory, in the end, was not theirs to achieve. All they could achieve was fidelity to their mission and to each other, and because they were faithful to those two things, victory was given to them.
We are the fellowship of Jesus Christ, called to faithfully bring his light to each other in these times using the gifts he’s given us, for his glory and the good of each other. We are called to be pray-ers more than players, givers more than takers, pilgrims more than tourists. If we are faithful to our calling and to each other, Christ will see to the victory, not in the short run necessarily, but in the long run, in eternity, which, after all, is all that really matters.