Late November is upon us – and as with every year, the autumn days grow shorter, the air gets cooler, and the leaves fall off the trees. But before those naked brambles are adorned with the bright festive lights that will mark the beginning of Advent and the approach of Christmas, we here in the United States are blessed to celebrate what is our unique inheritance from our Puritan Pilgrim forefathers and foremothers – the wonderful feast of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is the holiday that gives us a welcome respite from the over-all business of our lives, where we are encouraged to take the time to reflect on the state of our little corner of the world and give thanks for those things that we have been bestowed with – much of it with little or no effort on our own. Now of course, Thanksgiving does not require of us a willful act of amnesia: this has been a decidedly difficult period for many – here in New York, in our country, and around the world. A lot of people are struggling: unemployment is stubbornly high, economic growth remains persistently low, and “responsible government” seems to be a contradiction in terms. Still, there is a tremendous number of things that we as a global community ought to be thankful for; on the whole, the world’s population is healthier, wealthier, smarter and – believe or not – more peaceful then it ever has been before in recorded history. Democracy and freedom are spreading – aided significantly through the advent of social networking – and ever-increasing numbers of people globally are gaining access to those things that they need to lead a more dignified and human life. Now, this stated does not mean that we do not have significant challenges ahead of us in addressing the needs of those still too many who live lives of unnecessary suffering: however, we would be remiss if we were not incredibly grateful for the abundance with which we have been bestowed.
As it turns out, such feelings of gratitude appear to be a “gift that keeps on giving”: recent psychological studies seem to indicate that an attitude of “giving thanks” bestows upon us better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher satisfaction with life and kinder behavior towards others. In short, it seems that a posture of gratitude appears to be “hard wired” to our own well-being. This actually makes basic sense to me: I have always felt that the “grass is always greener” syndrome leads us to – to use a contemporary term – an “unsustainable” attitude towards living. For myself, in taking stock, I can honestly say that I have so very much in my life to be grateful for: my work, my home, my freedoms, my faith – but most particularly, I am especially grateful for the most precious gifts that I have: the people in my life – my family and my friends – and the oceans of love that they provide me with, which pours into my soul and sustains my very being. Without each one of these precious gifts, I could honestly say that I would not be the man that I have become today – hopefully more for the good then the ill! I am mindful of the fact that this love is a gift and is – to a significant degree –unearned. In fact, it is this unearned character that gives this love it characteristic as gift. And it is this particular characteristic of gift that brings me to perhaps what some may see as a particularly peculiar thing that I am most significantly grateful for this Thanksgiving – the only thing in my estimation that enables this gift that is love to keep on flowing – and that is the gift of forgiveness.
Forgiveness – like love itself – can be worked earnestly towards, but it can never be guaranteed. Like love, forgiveness is in the purview of the bestower to grant, and in this sense it is a gift: completely unearned. On a fundamental level, forgiveness is – to my estimation – one of the most essential components of human life: as important to the flourishing of the soul as water, or food, or air is to the body. Forgiveness frees the forgiver, and is completely restorative of the forgiven – it can even be transformative. So essential is forgiveness to human flourishing that the Lord Jesus Himself raised the very act of forgiveness to the level of a Sacrament in Reconciliation: God’s love reaching down to unburden our souls and restore them to their full dignity. Forgiveness truly is the prerequisite of the peaceful heart.
In my line of work – support for the social mission and ministry of the Church – one phrase that is often repeated are the words of Pope Paul VI in his message for World Day of Peace in 1972: “If you want Peace, Work for Justice”; thirty years later, Blessed John Paul II on the occasion of the World Day of Peace in 2002 very wisely added to his predecessors phraseology by telling people that there is “No Peace without Justice”, but adding that there is “No Justice without Forgiveness”. Perhaps Pope Paul VI did not add that second phrase to his World Day of Peace Message because he was writing at a more innocent time, but I think – because of the particularly harsh conditions that Blessed John Paul II lived through: the Nazi take-over of Poland, the Holocaust and other atrocities of the Second World War, and life behind the Iron Curtain during the totalitarian communist period of the Cold War – Pope John Paul II was particularly cognizant of the importance of forgiveness in world affairs – from the personal to the societal. It’s my prayer this Thanksgiving that we take this wise and saintly man’s words to heart.
So this Thanksgiving; I ask you dear readers to please give thanks for – and practice – the gift that is love, the gift that is forgiveness, and to please be ever grateful every encounter with every single human person that you meet along your way.
God bless you all!