For a number of years, I have been in the habit of writing a Thanksgiving essay as my way of expressing gratitude for the many blessings in life. Typically, those essays have taken the form of a single, sometimes lengthy story. This year’s entry, however, represents a departure from that tradition.
Earlier this month, I turned sixty-one years old. Having now completed the first full year of my seventh decade of life, I am in a scattered yet reflective mood. So, this year’s Thanksgiving entry finds me less with a (longish) story to tell and more with a few short musings possibly consistent with this later stage of life.
I hope one or more of them will bless you.
A friend of mine recently said to me: “God cannot be put in a box.” Her intention, of course, was to express that God is bigger and greater than we could ever imagine; and, I wholeheartedly agree with her. Yet, virtually every day of my life I violate that awesome truth.
When I sit down to pray, I most often do so with a concept/image of God in mind, something to make God seem more real and approachable. I suppose “boxing” God in that way helps me to cope with the mystery, especially God’s silence – even apparent absence – at difficult moments in life.
One such depiction of God, an anthropomorphic image found in the book of Genesis, grips my imagination like no other. It appears in the story of the fall of Adam and Eve, and it reads as follows:
“And they [i.e., Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” (Genesis 3:8a, RSV-CE)
I cannot explain my fascination. I can only admit to bringing a personalized version of this verse (i.e., a God box) to prayer countless times. In truth, one of my deepest longings has now become walking with God in the garden in the cool of the day.
To talk. To listen. To finally understand. And then, to rest in God’s peace.
This past summer, my wife Marianne and I attended several of our grandson Joseph’s little league baseball games. One inning of one game left a lasting impression.
The field where the game was played restricts spectator access along the baselines, so we were watching from behind the left field fence. Since we arrived a few minutes late, and our vantage point was a healthy distance from the dugouts, we weren’t even sure Joseph knew we were there. That question, however, would soon be answered.
When Joseph got up to bat for the second time, he got an infield hit. As often happens in little league, a series of fielding miscues followed; and Joseph, who should have been on first base, made it all the way around to third. His foot had no sooner safely landed on the base when he pivoted around and waved enthusiastically to us.
“Did you see that? Are you proud of me?” his wave seemed to say.
That endearing gesture spoke volumes to this grandfather’s heart. Joseph’s Mom and Dad had dropped him off that day, but they couldn’t stay for the game. If we’d not been present, with whom would Joseph have shared his great accomplishment?
Joseph’s wave reminded me of a child’s vulnerability and of his/her need to know support, affirmation, love, and acceptance. Since we are all God’s children, and since my mind inevitably works this way, it also taught me a lesson about prayer.
Sometimes I turn to God with a broad smile and wave. Other times, I turn and desperately search for God’s face in the crowd. Still other times, I turn and can only bow my head in sorrow.
What matters is that God comes to every game.
And, as it turns out, 3rd base is an excellent place to pray.
When I was a boy in parochial school, I learned that we all have a guardian angel assigned to guide and protect us. I can’t help wondering what the guardian angels of the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School were doing while Adam Lanza was on his hellish rampage.
Years ago, when I was working for the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), I was invited to deliver a presentation about preservation microfilming to an audience of imaging scientists at the Polaroid Corporation. That was, perhaps, the most intimidating lecture I’ve ever had to give. Before speaking, I remember studying the faces of those in attendance, knowing full well that every one of them was more knowledgeable than I about photographic processes.
Some years later, I had a similar experience while teaching a six-week adult-education course in my parish on the topic: “God and Human Suffering.” Looking out at the participants before my first lecture, I realized that every person in the room had suffered, many quite profoundly. Further, each person had processed his/her suffering in such a way as to reconcile it with his/her view of God. I was an amateur charged with speaking to an audience of experts.
Fortunately, the course was very well received. In fact, after the final lecture, many expressed a desire to meet for an additional session just to talk about what we had collectively learned. We did so, and it was a beautiful and humbling experience – so many moving stories.
I’m now convinced that discovering the beauty and goodness of God in the midst of our suffering is one of the most important adventures in life.
I can’t imagine a more central element to the spiritual life than daily prayer. Yet, in all the parishes to which I’ve belonged over the years (nine or ten, if memory serves), I’ve never found one that consistently prioritized teaching adult parishioners how to develop and deepen their personal prayer lives.
The divisions that exist in the Catholic Church today exhaust me. Twitter, in particular, has become a battleground wherein uncharitable comments from both the right and the left abound.
With that in mind, it is an interesting exercise to read James 3:1-12, while mentally substituting the word “keyboard” for the word “tongue.”
It is also worthwhile to recall that, whenever someone expresses an opinion that differs dramatically from one’s own, that person is defending what he/she believes to be good, i.e., he/she is not knowingly proposing evil. In all circumstances, deeper understanding is called for, not aggression.
I have a friend I greatly admire, who is an atheist. He is kind, thoughtful, socially conscious, a devoted husband and father, and he certainly has known his share of suffering. Though we’ve never discussed the matter outright, he and I would surely differ in our views about an afterlife.
Of course, the only way we will know which of us is right is if I’m right.
Should that prove to be the case, it would gladden my heart immeasurably if my friend were to walk with me – and with God – in the garden in the cool of the day.
Steve, My grandmother was an atheist.However her favorite hymn was”I Come to the Garden Alone”New Century Hymnal page 237.Another hymn with the theme of walkingwithÂ God is ” O for a Closer Walk with God”Pilgrim Hymnal 349.Hymns are prayerful. If you do not haveaccessÂ to Congregational/ UCC hymnalsdo you want me to snail mail you copies? And there is the Salem Church Covenant, 1629″We covenant with the Lord and one with an otherand doe bynd our selves in the presence of Godto walke together in all his waies, accordingÂ as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his blessesword of truth.”Â original spelling… Pilgrim HymnalDid not stop the witch trials. But MistressBradstreet’e husband was one of the good guys.Â Will attach my poem. All the Best, Sharon Chace
Thank you, Sharon. I’m home today, but I will check our collection for the items you suggested upon my return to the library next week.
I’m not sure an attachment can be included through the blog site’s messaging function. Could you email it to me at my BC address?
Thank you! Blessings always,
Thank you, Steve…again, you have touched many (and me) with your words from the heart! As a side note, Carl worked for Polaroid in the 70’s!! he was then recruited to California to work as an engineer in the semi-conductor industry. I hated leaving New England, but he really wanted to do this. Also, I agree about our church not helping people include prayer in their daily lives….and I really feel so many Catholics need catechesis. Enjoy Thanksgiving with your family! 🙂 Corinne
Thank you, Corinne! How long were you and Carl in California?
I hope your Thanksgiving will be filled with all possible blessings.
I have a friend who once said to me, “when someone tells me they don’t believe in God, my reply is ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in; chances are I don’t believe in him either.,”. All our attempts to define, describe, or imagine God can only ever be approximations that end up putting God in the box of our limited minds. I’ve come to believe that God is not a puzzle to be solve with the mind, but a mystery to be embraced with the heart.
Well said, Dennis. Very well said. May our hearts always be receptive to that most sublime Mystery. Blessed Thanksgiving to you and yours!
Thank you Steve for this beautiful piece. I have said it before and I will say it again. “You are a holy man.” Happy Thanksgiving. Jane
I hope someday to live up to your assessment. I hope you are well, dear friend!
Thanks Steve, well done.
Thank you, Ahmed!
Thank you, and the Holy Spirit, for your thought provoking essay!
I have been training and learning various forms of prayer for four years now, focusing on healing prayer and using Judith and Francis McNutt’s Christian Healing Ministries Teaching Series. I can also recommend Dallas Willard’s book “Hearing God” and Richard Foster’s book “Prayer” they both have great lectures on You tube.
In the face of suffering, I always remember that God goes before us, working with our circumstances in ways we cannot comprehend and making for good those things that man willfully makes bad. I remember it’s a fallen world, but that Jesus defeated Satan. He cannot win in the face of our Faith. I just came back from a three-day “Walk to Emmaus” this past weekend and felt the love of the Church (the body of Christ) in a way I have never known because so many were praying for me. I feel free of a lot of terrible things in my life and feel much grace and hope. There is very little Light, grace or hope in the news, but there is much in the World, and you are one of his Lights!
Linda, your note really touches my heart. I believe strongly in the promise of Romans 8:28 that, in all circumstances, God is working for the good. Thank you also for being a light in the world. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year!
P.S. I read Francis McNutt’s book titled Healing many years ago. It was an eye-opener. I should really revisit it.
Steve, thank you for your essay, so kind and wise. Just the right way to begin Thanksgiving morning! Love to all…
Thank you, Janet! I hope you and John have a wonderful day ahead of you. Blessings always, dear friend!
Hey Steve! Thanks for sharing your essay. I was inspired by your comment about the importance of daily prayer in our spiritual lives – and how we need encouragement and support in our communities of faith to foster such prayer. Happy Thanksgiving!
Great to hear from you, Drew! I hope you and your beautiful family are well and flourishing. Please pass along my greetings to Susan.
Thank you so much for sharing this piece with me. It is a truly uplifting and hopeful reminder, that though we may not feel God’s presence every day with the same intensity, He is there, cheering us on!
One quick comment on the centrality of prayer in our spiritual life. Last year I participated in the 19th Annotation, the Spiritual Exercises in daily life, here on campus. There were so many pearls from that experience, but one I value the most is the emphasis of daily prayer. Interestingly, it was this component of the exercises that posed the biggest challenge for some participants. As a Muslim convert, it was an easy adjustment to add the examen to one of my 5 prayers. This is a very long-winded way of saying I totally agree prayer is an underutilized and needed tool for “connection” with the divine.
Thank you for being God’s hands and uplifting us.
Thank you so much for your kind note. Getting to know wonderful colleagues/friends like you is one of the richest parts of the BC experience.
I participated in the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises when it was offered at BC during the 2015-2016 academic year, and it was a marvelous experience for me as well. I would be interested in speaking with you some time about how you have integrated the examen, and (possibly) other aspects of Ignatian spirituality, into your prayer life.
Thank you for taking the time to reach out!
Wishing you God’s own peace,
Thank you for sharing these beautiful musings, Steve. In particular, I was struck by your belief that finding God’s goodness and beauty in our suffering is an adventure. It reminds me of a dialogue my wife and I had many years ago in our Catholic Engaged Encounter community, during which we were challenged to thank God for our suffering. “Why would I ever do that?” I thought. But over time, with more life experience, more reflection on the events of my life, and more pain, I began to know in my heart what I had previously known only intellectually, that suffering cleaves us to Christ in an intimate way. To follow in the footsteps of Christ the King is to know his suffering intimately, and this is a great privilege. But it is hard to live :-).
Stef, I just read your comment, and I’m very grateful that you took the time to share so thoughtfully. Indeed, it is so hard to embrace the cross in our lives, but it seems to be the only authentic path of love. Happy New Year, my friend! And, thank you for all that you do to bless the BC community. – Steve
Gosh I’ve been thinking about you as Thanksgiving approaches–not the only time I think of you with gratitude for your being in the world, but more sharply as I look at some of these past pieces and selfishly hope for a new one. I somehow missed this one, but I was having radiation on a lung (doing well) and we were coming to France for what we expected would be four months.
Tom and I have been in France for the past year, and COVID border restrictions may keep us here for the next couple. We are missing friends and family, but in truth we have made wonderful friends in our little provincial village and feel safer here than in Maryland. Tom’s children live too far to see often, and we talk as often by Face Time as we would if we were in the States.
Today I shared your piece about the Meinke poem with a friend who is struggling with the memory of his dad’s suicide at his current age. He is finding a challenge in his ability to express love for his own stepsons and son as they grow into themselves and away from him in this traumatic time. He is a talented photographer and cinematographer who cannot work at the moment because of COVID restrictions, and that’s hard, too.
I shared your Santa piece with his wife, who has become a dear friend, and whose 8-y-o son has said he doesn’t believe in Santa for the first time. He has just become an altar boy.
Thank you again for your generosity and love, Steve. I hope that you and yours (in all senses) are safe and well.
Karen, I can’t tell you how blessed I feel by your kind and loving note. Thank you, dear friend! It is wonderful to have an update about your life; and, I am so glad to learn that you and Tom are “doing well.”
It is humbling to know that you have shared my essays with friends. I hope they find some word of encouragement therein.
Indeed, I’m working on an entry for this year, and I’m hoping to post it by Wednesday. The working title is: “Some Of My Best Friends Are…”, and I hope you’ll have a chance to read it.
We are doing well all things considered. I am at BC every work day, and the University is being extremely careful to contain the virus. I am tested every two weeks, and I find that helpful/consoling. That said, I greatly miss the interaction with our students, which has been scaled back considerably due to COVID-19.
Two of our grandchildren will be here shortly, Karen, so I’m afraid I must run. Please know that you and Tom are in my prayers every day. I wish you safety, continued wellness, and God’s own peace. With much love, Steve
Thank you, our hope for a lovely Thanksgiving, and love in return.
Karen: I just posted the new essay. Here’s the link: https://musingsamidthethorns.com/2020/11/24/some-of-my-best-friends-are/
Blessings always! – Steve