Thursday, November 24, 2011

The ‘Challenge’ of Giving Thanks

(Thanksgiving 2011: This homily was given on November 24, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 17: 11-19.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thanksgiving 2011]

My homily this morning is on the “challenge” of giving thanks.

Most people would agree (and rightly so!) that it’s a good idea to give thanks—and not just on one Thursday in November, but every single day of the year.  They might not always recognize the fact that God is the one “from whom all good things come,” as we say in the third Eucharistic prayer—hence he should be the one to whom their gratitude is primarily directed—but they do recognize and understand that giving thanks is an important activity for them to engage in.

And yet, it can also be a challenge—for them, and for all of us. 

In today’s gospel, for example, a healed Samaritan leper comes back to Jesus and gives thanks to God for his healing.

That certainly makes him a lot more virtuous than the other nine lepers who were also healed that day but did not come back.  However, the question that really interests me is:  Would this man have done the same thing if he had not been healed?  In other words, would this Samaritan leper have still been able to give thanks to God in the midst of his terrible illness, if it had not been taken away?  Would he still have been able to find a reason (or a number of reasons) to say “thank you” to the Lord?

Obviously, we can’t know with absolute certitude the answers to those questions, although we can certainly speculate on the matter.  But there is one thing we do know for sure: It would have been much more of a challenge!  Giving thanks after a great physical healing like the one this man experienced is relatively easy.  Giving thanks when God says no to the request for a healing and allows you to go on suffering is far, far more difficult.

But it’s just as important!  In fact, it’s even more important—because crosses and sufferings are never completely absent from anyone’s life!  So if we’re only going to give thanks when everything is “perfect,” then obviously we won’t be giving thanks very often!

And we will be miserable—because ungrateful people are some of the most miserable people on the planet!

I suppose all of this came to mind because of my own experience during the last 12 months.  As most of you know, last December I was diagnosed as being in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, which means that this is my first Thanksgiving since the diagnosis.

Consequently it’s a very “challenging” Thanksgiving holiday for me.  In all honesty, it was much easier for me to give thanks in years past when I had no major health issues to deal with.

Ah, the good old days!

But the same is probably true for most, if not all, of you.  You might not have Parkinson’s (and I pray you don’t!), but that doesn’t mean you’re completely free from the challenge to be grateful.  You might be challenged today in your thanksgiving by cancer, or heart disease, or diabetes, or lupus or some other serious ailment—or simply by old age.  You might be challenged today in your thanksgiving not because your own physical health is deteriorating, but rather because someone you love is really sick. 

Or because someone you care about deeply recently died.

Of course, it’s not only physical health problems that can challenge our willingness to be grateful in this life; we can  also be challenged by other crosses and difficulties, some of which come into our lives with little or no warning: a lost job, a broken friendship, a failed marriage, a betrayal—the list goes on and on.

In preparing for this homily I decided to take what might be called “the thanksgiving challenge,” and write down some of the things that I am grateful for in the midst of my present health situation.  I’ll conclude my homily by briefly sharing these insights with you.  Perhaps you’ll relate to some of them, such that you’ll be led to thank the Lord for the same realities in your life:

  1. I’m thankful to God for the love he has shown me through other people since my diagnosis.  That love has been most evident through the faithful, daily prayers that are being said on my behalf—some by people I’ve never even met!
  2. I’m thankful to God for the opportunity this disease has given me to grow in empathy and in compassion for others.  It’s much easier to relate to those who are suffering and to console them when you are suffering yourself.
  3. I’m thankful to God for giving me the opportunity through this illness to offer up some suffering in reparation for my sins and for other people—especially the souls in purgatory.  Hopefully that will make my own experience of purgatory a lot easier!
  4. I’m thankful to God for using this illness to keep me from getting complacent in my spiritual life.  We all tend to pray more—and to pray more fervently and attentively—when things are difficult in our lives.
  5. I’m thankful to God for the way this disease has made me more grateful for the little blessings of life that I experience every day—things I used to take for granted.
  6. I’m thankful to God for the motivation that Parkinson’s has given me to refine my priorities.  Not that my priorities were way out of order beforehand, but they definitely needed a little “tweaking”—which is probably the case for most of us.
  7. And, finally, I’m grateful to God for the way that Parkinson’s Disease has made me more repentant.  When you have a serious illness of any kind, you realize that, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, “We do not have here, on earth, a lasting city.”  Consequently, keeping your relationship with God in good order becomes extremely important.

Those are some of the ways that I’ve become more grateful to the Lord during the past year.  Hopefully you can identify with at least some of them, based on whatever is challenging your gratitude at the present time.

Of course, I look forward to a Thanksgiving Day in the future when I can stand at this very same pulpit and tell you that I’m grateful to God for something else: a cure or a healing. 

Now, I admit, it wouldn’t be very challenging to be grateful on that Thanksgiving Day—but it would definitely be nice!