I’ve never been one of those folks who, come Thanksgiving, likes to make lists of all the things for which I’m thankful. I just kind of think of them and rhetorically wave in their general direction and give a thumbs up.
See, there are all kinds of things I like, such as good food, beer, and wine; watching old movies; music; theology/philosophy; games; and the other things I do or experience that provide life with its little pleasures and, sometimes, a bit of insight into the divine order.
But when you’re talking about real thankfulness, there’s a debt involved, and usually a debt that cannot be repaid. If you can easily say “thank you” for something, it’s probably not rising to the level of a real debt. You can thank someone for a good meal or a gift or a ride to the airport, but can you thank them for love, or faith, or hope? It’s possible, but “thanks” really doesn’t cover it, does it? The debt goes deeper than that.
Patheos asked us to consider writing thanksgiving posts about people who have nurtured our faith, something I was reminded of this morning by Joanne McPortland’s excellent post. Sadly, I don’t really have a spiritual mentor, or some one person who was key to my spiritual development, and I’m sure I’m the poorer for it. I’m a borderline hermit, and my Christianity is a very solitary experience most times, publicly limited to worship and teaching and the occasional bar fight. My journey is more like a series of encounters with people and things that have led me to a deeper appreciation of Christ in the world, and I’m thankful for all of them. Here are a few.
I’m going to contradict myself right at the outset. I said you can’t thank people for something like love, but I often say, “Thanks for being my wife.” It can be awkward when I say it to strangers in the grocery store, but when I say it to the woman I married 22 years ago this month, I really mean it. She was the answer to a prayer: “Please help be find someone to love.” That prayer was answered when I was 18, and I promptly thanked God for this fathomless gift by turning my back on him and functionally lapsing from the faith for 15 years. It helps that she is a saint: patient, kind, giving, gentle: all things good. I was a lost soul when I found her, and I’d be dead without her. That’s not figuratively dead: I mean it literally. I was on a downward spiral to ruin, and she saved me. There is no thanks good enough for her.
It’s a cliche, but one that bears constant repeating: you don’t really understand life or your purpose in the world until you have kids. I am on this earth not to leave behind some great book or make a pile of money or die with more toys than the next guy. I am on this earth to raise a boy and a girl in such a way that one day, many decades after I’m dead and buried, they themselves will come to glory in God. My wife tells the parents of her first communicants that their purpose is not to get kids through school or into college or even to make them happy and healthy and wealthy. Their purpose as parents is to get their kids to heaven. We’re playing a long game, here, and the prize is eternity. My children keep me focused on that goal, and thus on the meaning of life itself.
Oh dear, does it suck. Yes indeed. It’s agonizing. It crippled me. It left me broken and wounded. And in that broken state, I finally crashed through my own pride and hubris and was able to touch the face of God. Pain is, as CS Lewis said, God’s megaphone. In my utter ruin, I was finally able to find the way back to the faith of my childhood. I had an encounter with the living God that left me with no doubt at all about His existence. Suffering was a gift.
It’s also a gift that you really, really don’t want, so I’m thankful for remission.
Since I began working on a masters, I have had 18 solid months of no reading other than theology. I finally snapped, and made some time for a first love: books and literature. Victorian novels. Poetry. Stories. Not too much right now since time is limited, but enough to renew my soul a bit. The written word is sacred. Scripture was a gift of the undiluted guidance of the Holy Spirit. Shakespeare, Yeats, Dickens, Chesterton, Eliot, and others were also given a gift of the Spirit, albeit it in a lesser form than Holy Writ. We find God there as well.
The more I see of the world, our country, our leaders, our politics, our businesses, our economy, and all the other messes we’ve made, the more I retreat to the pleasures of home and faith and community. When you turn away from the meaningless noise of the world, you find wisdom in the simple places. Earlier this year, we started keeping chickens. Three chicks, bought locally and hand-raised. Chickens are beautiful, friendly, and useful. They add immense richness to our lives. Just changing their water, filling their feeder, and freshening their straw and bedding becomes an act of communion with God’s creatures. It brings us closer to the source of our food, and gives us joy at the same time. I try to let them out of their run for a little while each day, so they can scratch around for bugs and get chased by the dog. I usually bring a book or an iPad along to get some reading done while I wait (we have to stay with them because of the hawks), but I usually just wind up watching them. It’s all very zen, as they do their little scratch-scratch-backstep dance while looking for food. There’s a simple wonder in a freshly laid egg: a tasty little microcosm of creation.
I know people get all kinds of cranky about bloggers: they don’t like them spouting off, they don’t like the idea of people speaking for the Catholic Brand without proper oversight, and they don’t like the contentiousness of the comboxes. Me neither! But … the online Catholic community has provided a vital lifeline to my faith for me. Informing (and sometimes misinforming), challenging, connecting, amusing, angering: all of it is useful. Something is happening with the faith and the internet. I’m not sure what it is, and like many things in the Church it will take a century or so to figure it out, but the Catholic blogosphere has created a small but vital little fire inside the Church. Remember: there my not be many bloggers and readers compared to the millions in the Church, but each is likely to be more engaged in their parishes than someone who doesn’t connect with other Catholics online. We take those online encounters with us into our ministries. It’s affected me, and I have to imagine it’s affected others.
Hot damn, do I love this Church. Everything from its weirdos and disaffected souls to its ancient rituals and odd byways. And the biggest love of all is just one word: truth. I love it because I love the truth. I sought the truth everywhere for years. I looked in the most unlikely places, and then I found it in the place I least expected to find it: in the place I least wanted to find it: the Church of my childhood. I was out of the Church! I was free! I didn’t want to go back. I was dragged back by a God who wouldn’t give up on me. And I found it and fell in love for the first time for a simple reason: it’s true. It can be beautiful and profound and moving and grand and all those things, and it wouldn’t matter. And it can be squalid and frustrating and awkward and irritating and all those things, and it wouldn’t matter. Only one thing matters, and it was the greatest shock of all: it was true. At the end of my exploring, after years of wandering and pain, I wound up back where I began, and knew it for the first time.