As Thanksgiving approached, the first grade teacher instructed her class to draw a picture of someone or something for which they were thankful.
Douglas, a frail and unhappy boy who usually stood close to the teacher while others played at recess, drew a picture of a hand. He proudly gave the drawing to his teacher.
The drawing was just an empty hand. Nothing else! For once the other children were speechless. No one knew what the empty hand meant. Not even his teacher. To find out she had to ask Douglas.
"It is your hand, teacher," the boy explained. With tears in her eyes, the teacher recalled how often she said, "Douglas, take my hand." Or "let's do this together."
By drawing the hand, Douglas apparently was trying to express his thanks for the many ways that his beloved teacher extended a helping hand to him. When she did, Douglas was grateful.
Spirit of thanksgiving
Douglas's gratitude captures the spirit of thanksgiving that the pilgrims had when they celebrated the first Thanksgiving. According to tradition, during the preceding hard months, half of their number died from scurvy and exposure to the elements.
Despite their severe losses, the pilgrims prayerfully thanked God that enough of them survived to enjoy freedom for themselves and for their children yet to be born. They also shared their blessings with Indian friends by inviting them to a three-day feast of thanksgiving. The pilgrims had a sense of Christian gratitude rather than entitlement.
The true spirit of thanksgiving is captured in the Eucharistic Preface number four of daily Mass, "You have no need of our praise. Yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift."
The "Prayer after Communion" of the Thanksgiving Day Mass expresses our need for grace in order to be thankful in the words, "Help us to reach out in love to all people so that we may share with them the goods of time and Eternity."
Sharing our blessings
Thanksgiving invites us to be grateful by sharing our blessings with others, especially those in need. St John Chrysostom wrote, "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life." The pilgrims modeled this by sharing their blessings with their Indian friends.
We can share our blessings with others by contributing to the Campaign for Human Development, to a food pantry, to some other worthy cause, or by quietly helping someone in need. We can call, write, or visit a shut-in or a lonely person.
Or we can invite someone who lives alone with no family or friends to share our Thanksgiving dinner. If we ask, God will show us other ways to be thankful.
We celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. And we celebrate Christ's gift of the Eucharist to us on another Thursday - Holy Thursday.
For Catholics, participating in Thanksgiving Day Eucharist is especially appropriate because the Mass is the center of Catholic Christian life. And the word Eucharist comes from a Greek word which means thanksgiving.
At Mass we can ask the Holy Spirit to empower us to be thankful on a daily basis for our blessings, especially those that we may take for granted. Grateful participation in the Eucharist graces us to bring a more thankful heart to our Thanksgiving meal. May we all enjoy a thankful Thanksgiving.
Fr. Don Lange is pastor emeritus of the Diocese of Madison.
Questioning the Church:
As a Catholic, am I not allowed to question the Church's teachings? Do I have to believe everything the Church teaches?
There's nothing wrong when a person growing in his faith poses questions in an earnest quest for truth. That's how we discover what the truth is.
No one, then, should be afraid of entertaining "perhaps." Perhaps God doesn't exist. But perhaps he does. Perhaps the Catholic Church is woefully misguided in her teachings. But perhaps her teachings come from God himself. These kinds of questions must be entertained.
Those who are afraid to put their beliefs to the test in this way are clinging to an ideology that they fear will not stand up to reality. On the other hand, those who seek the truth have no fear of surrendering their beliefs to reality. Entertaining "perhaps" is the only path to the truth. It's the only path to the surety and freedom of faith.
Faith, however, is a gift that doesn't necessarily come all at once. The Church herself recognizes that "an educational growth process is necessary in order that individual believers . . . may patiently be led forward arriving at a richer understanding and fuller integration of [Christ's] mystery in their lives."
Still, if the Church is who she claims to be, then the gift of faith will ultimately lead the seeker of truth to embrace all that she teaches. If in the end a person still protests what the Church teaches, then that person doesn't really believe the Catholic Church. At that point it would seem hypocritical to remain Catholic.
"Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you" (Mt 7:7). Pose every question you've ever had about the Church, entertain every "perhaps" you can think of, but don't be satisfied until you find the answers. The truth is not afraid of your questions. The question is, are you afraid of the truth?
Isn't morality a matter of my own conscience?
The Church has always taught that Catholics, like all people, are obligated to follow their own consciences - on issues of sexual morality and every other matter.
But there is an even more fundamental obligation to form the conscience according to the truth. Conscience is not free to invent right and wrong. Conscience is called to discover the truth of what is right and wrong and to submit its judgments to the truth once the truth is found.
While all of us have the basic moral law written in our hearts by God, original sin tends to cloud our judgment. Sometimes our own fallen desires can take us completely off track. This is why the conscientious person sees the Church's moral teachings as a tremendous gift. They're a sure norm for forming one's conscience according to the truth.
Too often we use "conscience" to give a morally acceptable veneer to what we wanted to do all along without discerning our behavior in light of objective standards.
Think about it: if personal conscience is the autonomous determinant of good and evil, morality becomes whatever I want it to be. There must be objective standards that we're all responsible to follow. The objective standards of God are revealed to us through the teachings of his Church.
Yet, if we don't like what his Church teaches, we hide behind our claims of "conscience" and imagine a God who accepts what we want. But that's a god who is other than God. That's an idol.
We'll never find peace and true happiness until we embrace God's will for our lives.
Christopher West is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute in West Chester, Pa. His column is syndicated by www.OneMoreSoul.com and reprinted from his book Good News About Sex and Marriage: Honest Questions and Answers About Catholic Teaching (St. Anthony Messenger Press).
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