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Giving thanks despite our reservations


So often our praise is contingent upon God’s favor, whether it is something as tangible as our health or intangible as the virtue of contentment. So, too, with the glories of nature. From the moment of a child’s birth or as the sun sinks into the horizon, leaving a lavender sky in its wake, it is easy to praise and marvel at the “wonder of all God’s creation.”

But what about those moments when the clouds open and leave deep ruts in the road that keep us revving in place? Or those cul-de-sacs of the heart and mind -- interludes of alienation or silent despair that become all consuming? Or those irritating, unthinking individuals who may not cause you to don a monastic habit but do keep you vigilant with a bottle of Mylanta? Are those moments or individuals worthy of our praise?

A friend who works her own “wonders of creation” with woodcut prints reminds me of the precariousness of our perceptions. It’s a kind of spiritual sleight of hand: What we experience as a curse or burden contains the promise of a blessing. As a young lady, my friend grew up during the occupation of Vienna by the German army. Her witness to the worst of human indifference is a testimony to her faith: She knows there is nothing so humbling as want, nothing so dreadful as living under the daily threat of death. She knows the fear that comes from hearing the metal heel of the Gestapo on cobblestone. She knows how long a stewed chicken can feed a family of four. She knows the quiet desperation of seeking a father carried off by the German army for a labor detail in Czechoslovakia. Yet, witnessing firsthand the atrocities humans are capable of, she knows that deprivation is the key to appreciation; out of fear, the potential for compassion and understanding arises.

Individually or collectively we are all visited by pain and suffering. It is rarely chosen or sought and we try our damnedest to avoid it. To extract meaning from a bad situation is a retrospective process. Only after a painful experience can we find meaning. Just as it is difficult to imagine that an acorn conceals the potential for shade, so too it is difficult to imagine that pain and suffering hold the potential for grace.

So, in this season of being grateful, let’s acknowledge what we do not understand or what we find lamentable and give thanks despite our reservations.

Let us give thanks for our physical and emotional pain. Not in a way that denies grief and mental anguish, nor to relish it with sadistic joy. There are no ready solutions or pat answers. But let us recognize pain and suffering as a process of becoming that fosters the potential for a deeper insight into ourselves and the suffering of others.

Let us give thanks for that which confuses if it prompts us to investigate with a doubt that instructs and not merely criticizes.

Let us give thanks for those who irritate us: the audible gum chewer; the carrying voice in a theater who reads credits aloud; the person who asks embarrassing questions at the wrong time and in the wrong company; the person who sees life as a series of five-minute events -- “Just give me five minutes” -- no matter how long they actually take; the “just one question” phone solicitor who disregards the background noise or claims of inconvenience as the baby cries and the spaghetti boils over; the chronically late; the chronically jolly; the chronically woeful. Let us be mindful of our own idiosyncrasies and capacity for inflexibility, welcoming constructive criticism that corrects an aberrant or annoying behavior. When we brood over slights and insults, let us remember that we have issued our fair share.

Let us give thanks for this country’s religious pluralism, for the richness of God’s expression. We should not only appreciate our Judeo-Christian and Native American religious traditions, but the growing spiritual diversity that opens us to a common mystery, acknowledging how we bind God with our parochial longings and spiritual smugness. Where crimes of hatred and ignorance exist toward our spiritual friends -- the Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus -- let’s work for an inclusive dialogue that celebrates our similarities.

Let us be thankful for long lines, traffic jams, personal intrusions and inconveniences that make us pause and permit us to ponder or to reach out with a hand that inevitably comes back to touch our own heart.

Let us give thanks for power outages and other inconveniences that defy our desire for order -- when all the appliances that hum and the electronic media that amuse are silenced. Those are the times when we become reacquainted with self and listen to what the quiet teaches.

Most important, during this start to a new liturgical season and nature’s yearly passing, let us be mindful of our death in a way that allows us to live a fuller life, a life the psalmist spoke of: Let us dance, give joy, “sing to the Lord all our lives, make music to our God while we live.”

G. Wayne Barr, an oblate of Mount Saviour Monastery, works part-time as a mentor assistant for SUNY Empire State College in Corning, N.Y. His e-mail is WaySi53@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000