Sunday, October 09, 2016

The Importance of Working Hard at Being Grateful

Anna Pullano

(Twenty-eighth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 9, 2016 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: Twenty-eighth Sunday 2016]

Last summer we attended our oldest daughter’s high school graduation.  It was a lovely celebration honoring the class of 2013, except, for us, there was no graduate.  I did not have a camera at the ready or flowers to give or anyone to meet for photo sessions afterward.  The classmate who was tragically killed in a car accident several months before was remembered and honored and greatly missed by her entire class. The classmate that would have, should have walked across the stage to accept her diploma was our girl, Anna.  The whole graduation ceremony and the remembrances of Anna were all very moving, and I tried desperately to keep back the tears.
Those are the words of a woman from Syracuse, New York named Karen Pullano.  Karen and her husband Bill, who’s a dentist, have several children, but in recent years two of them have died in tragic ways: Anna, in the car accident mentioned in that quote, and Mikey, their four-year old son, who died after a nine month battle with cancer.

I read Karen’s story in a Catholic magazine several months ago, and, when I did, two things struck me about this woman: 1) the depth of her pain—and 2) the depth of her gratitude.

Those are two realities—pain and gratitude—that we don’t normally associate with one another.  But, praise God, they can coexist.

But it requires work to make them coexist!  It requires a conscious, deliberate, focused effort to be grateful in the midst of great suffering. 

Actually, this is true even in good circumstances.  Even when God gives us great blessings in our lives, gratitude doesn’t come automatically.  In today’s gospel story, for example, only one of the healed lepers made the effort to go back to Jesus and say thank you for his healing.  Nine apparently couldn’t be bothered.  But the one who did return—the Samaritan—received an extra gift that the others did not receive (a gift that was even more important than his cure from leprosy).  He received salvation!  Jesus said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”

Sometimes when you make the effort to thank God for the blessings he’s given you, he gives you even more blessings, as was the case for this healed leper.

Of course, it requires a lot more work and effort to be grateful when something bad happens in your life—like the death of a child in a car accident or when you’re diagnosed with a terrible disease.

Yet even at those moments—by the grace of God—gratitude is still possible.  The key is to call to mind all the things you still have to be grateful for in life.

This is a lesson we learn from Karen Pullano.  In that article of hers that I quoted from at the beginning of my homily, she makes it very clear that since these tragedies have happened she’s had to battle a lot of angry, negative thoughts, and consciously work to replace them with thoughts of gratitude: thoughts of gratitude which are rooted in faith.  Listen to her words:
The graduation ceremony was especially difficult because it was a celebration of earthly achievement and necessarily included a large degree of looking forward to the next big venture in the lives of these young adults.  We have no earthly thing left to look forward to for Anna.  All our hopes and dreams for our daughter have been fulfilled and for that I am so thankful, but in bearing the day-to-day grief and loss that is ours, it is so necessary to ‘take captive every thought’ and banish the what-ifs and what-should-have-beens.  They are no longer reality and can serve no purpose, but still the thoughts come, and it takes work to focus on what is before us and what is above us. 
Being at the graduation forced us to focus on what was behind us already.  It was hard work to banish the bitter and angry thoughts and sense of total loss and unfairness and replace it with the sure and true knowledge that Anna did graduate.  She has already moved on in the ultimate way.  She has collected the scholarship—a full ride!  It took work to remind myself of all the reasons I am thankful.  It took work to recall the tremendous grace God gives me every single day.  I reminded myself that never do we hear of Mary being angry or speaking out in any way as she followed her Son to His crucifixion.  She accepted and abided.  She trusted and surrendered.
Toward the end of the article, she gets more specific about some of the things she’s grateful for in the midst of her suffering.  She says, for example:
 ·         “I am thankful for the strong and faithful man God has put beside me.”  (Referring there to her husband, Bill.)
·         “I am thankful that even as I begged and pleaded with God for my girl to be ok, that he gave me the grace and the strength to surrender to his will and his plan for her.”
·         “I am thankful that in my weakest moments I have found strength by the power of Christ living in me.”
·         “I am thankful for the will and the grace to choose truth over the lie, to choose love over anger.”
·         “I am thankful that the agony of the garden and the pain of the cross can never win and Life awaits us all.”

Karen Pullano has worked hard at being grateful—and it’s made a big difference in the quality of her life since her two tragic losses.  We need to do the same thing—especially if we’re dealing with a major difficulty or trial in our life right now.

On a personal note, this is something I’ve done quite often in my ongoing battle with my Parkinson’s Disease.  That’s because this disease has so many negatives attached to it.   It really does affect almost every aspect of your life.  Simple things that you never thought twice about all of a sudden become major issues for you: buttoning your shirt; tying your shoes; putting on a sweater; getting vested for Mass; typing on your computer; turning a page in a book; cutting a piece of meat on your dinner plate; getting out of a chair that’s relatively low to the ground.

Everyday activities like these that I always took for granted are now major concerns for me.  And even though I’m basically doing pretty well dealing with everything, there are moments when I need to step back and say, “Okay Lord, in the midst of all these negatives, in the midst of all these things that I get frustrated with and upset about, help me to see all that I have to be grateful for.  Help me to recognize your many blessings in my life—and to be thankful for them.”

And he does help me.

I encourage you to do the same thing, even if you’re not going through a difficult time right now, but especially if you are.  Sit down in a quiet spot someday soon (maybe even here in church) and ask the Lord to help you to get in touch with the many blessings he’s given to you in your life. 

And write them down!  If you do this correctly, you’ll be surprised how many blessings you come up with.  In fact, you’re sure to think of some later on that you’ll want to add to your list.  Keep adding them!  Then put the list somewhere where you’ll have easy access to it (maybe in your Bible or in a prayer book), and look at it every once in a while.  It will become a useful tool that will help you to “work” on your gratitude—especially in the difficult moments and periods of your life.