Many years ago, when I was a much younger man and had just come home from war, my grandmother, to whom I was very close, said to me, “You’ve changed. You’re not the same as you were.” I didn’t have the impression that she was paying me a compliment. I was changed, more somber, not as cheerful and carefree as I had been, with a tendency to go to the dark side. But it gives me pause that many people I’ve known, who have gone through much worse than I have, seem to have a much brighter vision of life than I do. It gives me pause that in this nation, perhaps the most prosperous in the history of the world, there is such a high incidence of addiction, depression, despondency and worse.
I’m often struck, when watching documentaries about third-world countries or something like Bishop Robert Barron’s superb Catholicism series, at how dirt-poor children playing in an open field with a soccer ball made of animal skin stuffed with cloth or straw are having the time of their lives; and how days after some cataclysmic natural disaster, the poorest of the poor are banding together to patch up their broken lives, happy to be given another chance at life. It almost seems, with exceptions I admit, that the more human beings have, the more they take for granted, and the more it takes to ward off boredom.
Yesterday I attended the funeral of Msgr. Jim McDonald, a priest of more than fifty years in our diocese. A much younger priest, the first of many in our diocese who traced his vocation back to Msgr. McDonald, said that the thing that amazed him most about his beloved mentor was that until the very end, even in sickness, he still had the first fervor of ordination. And those who knew him, as I did, can testify that this was completely accurate. For Msgr. McDonald, the honeymoon never ended, and this was not because he led a charmed, care-free life.
He was pastor of St. John the Evangelist parish in Center Moriches when TWA Flight 800 crashed at Smith’s Point. He rushed to the scene, spending the entire night there, praying and comforting those who were horrified at what they saw. Two of the passengers turned out to be a couple he had married six years before. He said their funeral Mass. Like all priests he saw more than his share of sorrow. It never altered his love of the priesthood. It never altered that first fervor of ordination. It never altered his enormous gratitude to God for giving him the gifts of life and faith and vocation.
From time to time I like to highlight on our bulletin cover some quote or other of the inimitable G.K. Chesterton. He was a great genius and a great twentieth century Catholic convert. I think what really defined him was his obsessive desire to live every moment gratefully. He once wrote, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
And elsewhere: “The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them.”
Or how about this? “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
And one last Chesterton quote ( I expect you’ll all run out after Mass to purchase something of his to read): “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert . . . and grace before I open a book . . . and grace before swimming, walking, playing, dancing, and before I dip the pen in the ink.” And it showed, you know? Almost all he wrote exuded joy and gratitude.
Today is Thanksgiving. Chesterton and Msgr. McDonald would say that everyday should be Thanksgiving. Maybe it came more naturally to them than it does to us, but all that means is that we should work at it a little harder.
Frank Sheed, another great twentieth century Catholic once wrote that God created us because he thought we would like it. Could God have been wrong? Maybe the greatest sickness, the greatest sin, is not to be grateful. God spare us that sickness and that sin.
A very happy and blessed Thanksgiving to you all.
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- Exaltation of the Cross: September 14