“Gerry, show me a man who doesn’t practice gratitude and I’ll show you a man whose spiritual life is arid,” said Father Benedict Groeschel to me several years ago. He went on to say that Praise and Thanksgiving were the highest form of prayer, that a healthy psyche, a healthy spiritual life depended on the daily practice of these. It would be easy to say that they come easily when things are going well, and more difficult when things are going poorly, but looking within myself, I would be a liar if I said that this were true.
Jesus healed ten lepers one day, and only one returned to thank Him. He inquired if there were not nine others who were also healed. It’s easy to forget in the midst of triumph, of success, of great good fortune to stop and thank the One from whom it all flows. My proclivity to be one of the 90% who don’t return to say thank you occasioned that loving remonstration and correction from my spiritual director. So, I have learned through the years to thank God not only in times of joy, but also in times of sorrow. This year has held out ample opportunity from both.
In April, I lost my great scientific mentor, Dr. Anne Dranginis, to ovarian cancer having learned of her death several months later. Anne was not only a gifted scientist, she was the epitome of compassion, of all that is noble in humanity. She had a keen sense of justice, of fairness, of ethics and integrity, and moved through this world with an easy graciousness that was stunning to behold. She sustained me with her gracious good humor and wise counsel in some very dark and unproductive times during my research. I cannot imagine a world without her in it, and yet, for all of the sorrow, I cannot praise or thank God enough for her having graced my life as she did.
Two weeks after I learned of Anne’s death, Joseph became an Eagle Scout, and perhaps one of the most highly decorated in the nation at the age of 16. For the first time since he was diagnosed at age 4 with autism and a raft of other diagnoses, I could really, really believe that Joseph had turned the corner, that he can make his way in the world. Nothing was handed to him. Nothing. He set his sights on Eagle and let nothing deter him. Along the way he has developed a love of the younger scouts and looks after them as a big brother. They love him in return. He has done all that he has in scouting while also doing well in school, while developing into a fiercely competitive bowler who also received a $500 college scholarship from a family fund to recognize not his skill, but his sportsmanship in the game. He serves at the altar, dances Irish step and Street Tap, plays baseball (rather well!), coaches children’s bowling leagues, has joined a scouting unit that does archery and is becoming quite skilled.
Yes, God is at work in this boy. Last night, the manager of the Scout Shop at our local Boy Scout camp gave Joseph the phone number of a mother with a young son on the autism spectrum, and asked if he wouldn’t mind mentoring this boy who badly needs an understanding scouting mentor.
All of this is what my darkest days and nights, my worst fears as a father have melted into. How can I not thank God enough?
And then there is another Ann, my best friend from the years immediately after high school, whom I met at youth ministry meetings in her parents’ home. No romance or dating. We ran peer retreats together and grew up together under the umbrella of God’s grace. Separated for a few decades by a comedy of errors and life’s cross-currents, Ann found me again through this blog, and we reconnected a couple of years ago in the midst of her husband’s cancer. He was a great man and she turned a two-year prognosis into an eight year testament to the power of love. She cared for him right to the end this past August, a one-woman nursing home. The finest example of sacrificial love I have ever seen, and I’ve been blessed to see plenty.
As we have picked up anew a friendship so deeply and thoroughly formed by our faith when we were young, it has been remarkable to see that who we are is who we were, that God has been moving the chess pieces on the board all along, that we have become precisely the persons we aspired to become when we were trying to figure it all out so long ago. But that has come about through a combination of great success and great challenge, through joy and sorrow.
There have been several other old friendships rekindled this past year. In sharing all that has transpired, the template seems to be the same. We were all so very young, so filled with high ideal. We thought we had all the answers and life was held by us on a leash.
And then life happened.
Amazingly, we really did have all the answers. We had met and grown up in youth ministry, retreat ministry, campus ministry. We really did have all the answers, but none that we thought we had. In the tough times, we recalled the words of our great mentor, Father Luke McCann. As we’ve sat and shared our journeys through life the common refrain has been, “And then I remembered what Luke would always say…”
It was always a mixture of scripture, practical wisdom, and great humor.
It was wisdom beyond that of Solomon that we couldn’t grasp at the time, entered deep into our memories anyway. Marriages saved. Careers preserved. Souls set on fire. Love recalled and rekindled. All through the blessings of our youthful and faithful community in retreat and campus ministry.
There has been so much this past year, the highest highs and lowest lows, and all at once. Through it all, we bless and thank God for all of the good that we have and have had. The blessings do not always remain present in our lives. Friends sometimes drift apart and spouses return to their God. What remains is the effect of the blessing from God, its intended purpose.
We are forever changed. We learn the language of Heaven. We grow. We love. We laugh. We cry. We come to appreciate what is most important:
Faith, Hope, and Love.
Paul tells us the greatest of these is love.
On this Thanksgiving, I praise God for Regina and how she teaches me about love.
I praise him for all of my mentors through life, whom He has called back to Himself.
I praise Him for the children He has entrusted to my care, for how they have taught me about love, about fatherhood and through my fatherhood, about God’s fatherhood.
I praise Him for the many friends I have made and those who have come back into my life this past year, for all the love and richness they have brought me and my family.
I praise Him for the adversities which have strengthened me and refined my perspective.
I praise Him for our livelihood, our freedoms, our faith.
Father Benedict was quite correct those many years ago. The practice of gratitude is the cornerstone of a healthy psyche and spiritual life. It is perhaps best summed up in the Weekday IV Preface in the former Sacramentary
Father, all powerful and everliving God, we do well always and everywhere to give You thanks.
You have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank You is itself Your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to Your greatness, but makes us grow in Your grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord.