The discipline of giving thanks

Tomorrow I return home – to Honduras. I’ve been in the United States since May 19. This may have been the longest time I’ve been in the US since 2007.

I came, first of all, to renew my Iowa driver’s license. I looked at my license in April and realized it expired June 1. I have a Honduran driver’s license, but that won’t work when I visit the US or other countries.

When I decided to go back to the US (and found the airfares very inexpensive), I considered getting the Corona virus vaccine. Knowing that I’d probably have to spend three or four weeks between doses, I originally thought of flying back to Honduras and then returning for the shot. A good friend dissuaded me from this idea and suggested I take a retreat.

With another friend’s help, I got an appointment to get a new driver’s license and the new card has arrived before i leave. I was able to get an appointment for the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine two days after arriving here and got the second dose last Friday. I also found that my debit card had expired last year and was able to update it.

I also had time to go back and visit at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and the Iowa State campus.

I stayed with friends who were kind enough to lend me a car for the whole time. I also enjoyed a beautiful sunset one night from their back porch.

I served as deacon twice at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames, where I had served as a campus minister for almost 24 years. The first Sunday (Pentecost), the twin daughters of some dear friends were baptized during Mass.

I had time to visit with some friends, eat some great meals (including asparagus and rhubarb which are treats this time of year.) I’ve put on a few pounds but decided on an exercise regimen when I get back home.

I’ve had some really great conversations, especially with a friend as he showed me a just planted grove of trees on his farm that will be a place of prayer. Returning from my retreat, I had a great morning and afternoon with a friend and his family; he had stayed with me while studying English and is now living in Perry. It was great to see him, especially since he had suffered a severe case of COVID-19. Last night, I had a great evening with another family who have five girls, including twins who will be one year old in a week.

I also was able to go through some of the stuff I have stored in Ames. I managed to give away almost five boxes of books. I also found some photos that I didn’t know I had and was able to send them to cousins. I found two photos of my cousin in her habit; she is a St. Joseph Sister and hasn’t worn the habit for decades. Talking with her, she told me she had not seen these photos.

I also came across some memorabilia from the month I left for Honduras in 2007, including this interesting (and humbling) acrostic of my name.

But, in many ways, the greatest gift was the retreat.

I found an eight-day retreat at the Creighton University Retreat Center in Griswold, Iowa. It was arranged by Creighton’s Christian Spirituality Program and the directors were advanced students in their program. Eight days of silence with personal spiritual direction session each day were what I needed. I also happened to pick up Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, which I highly recommend. I also did a lot of walking on the beautiful grounds of the center.

The retreat was intense, after the months of seclusion during the early pandemic and feels of being isolated and being out of the loop. Sometimes my ruminations continued after I tried to get to sleep (which wasn’t easy since the sun doesn’t go down here until after 9 pm during this time of the year.)

 One night, May 31, the day before my birthday. I decided I needed to do something different than go over my life and try to figure things out. Nouwen suggests that the way to go through the resentment of the older son in the parable is the double road of thanksgiving and trust. So, obviously inspired, I decided to name people in my life and give thanks to God for them.

I don’t know how much time I did this before I fell asleep, but when I woke up twice during the night, I returned to the practice and added more names. When I got up, more people came to mind. During my hour of spiritual direction, I remembered more. I still find myself adding people, even those I have been in conflict with or who have caused me pain.

Before noon, on June 1, I spent some time in the chapel and went through my life chronologically, remembering people.

This remembering of persons in my life and giving thanks for them was a gift that was healing.

I have a great devotion to the saints and rejoice in being surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses – from Mary to Saint Oscar Romero, from Saints Francis and Clare to Saint Benedict the Black.

A few years ago, I began to write the names of people in need or who have died in a book in my prayer room at home, so that I am surrounded by the people in need.

But now I have a new circle that I am aware of – and grateful for: the people I have come across in my life. Their presence has enriched me, has helped me become who I am.

I remember with joy people like Fr. Regis Duffy, OFM, who was a high teacher, and with whom I stayed in contact until a year or two before his death. (Going through stored files, I found a few notes he had sent me.)

I even remember a painful situation when I was working in Ames which led me to seek spiritual direction and a short period of therapy; any resentment I had against those responsible for my pain at that time is fading away.

I even reconnected with some folks. A woman who as a teenager had been part of the St. Thomas Charity, Justice and Peace commission, came up to me after Mass last. A friend whom I haven’t heard from in years sent me an e-mail (which I still have to respond to).

We are surrounded by people who are gifts of God to us, even if they cause us grief.

As I close this reflection, I call to mind the famous epiphany of Thomas Merton at Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, which he writes about in his diaries as well as in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. As he wrote in the latter:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness….

“It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.

“I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.…

“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other….”

It is not easy to maintain this, in the midst of the hassles of daily life, but I now have another discipline to add to my spiritual life – remembering the people who have been part of my life. I need to recall that “they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

May we all shine – grateful for life, grateful for friends, grateful to God for life.

As Mercedes Sosa sings, “Gracias a la vida”.

2 responses to “The discipline of giving thanks

  1. PS Also, thank you for the “double road” practice. I read Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son and had forgotten about that! What a wonderfully blessed trip you have had!

  2. I just read about Merton’s experience in Louisville…. I had a similar experience in a shopping center the day after my mom died. I remember looking at all these strangers and feeling my heart overflow with love and compassion. I imagine the loss of mom was the catalyst for this. It was beautiful.

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