By Vincent Ryan Ruggiero (Courtesy: Catholic Journal.US)
Special days of thanksgiving existed in earlier cultures, including Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and ancient Jewish, yet we Americans are more familiar with the ones that occurred several hundred years ago in Florida, Virginia, and most notably Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621.
From the beginning, American Thanksgiving has been religious, though not in a denominational sense. People of all religions have made the day an occasion for giving thanks to God for the blessings they and their country have received. With the evolution of American culture, that broadly religious characteristic has been joined, and to some extent overshadowed, by more secular and commercial meanings.
The great majority of Americans still enjoy the traditional celebratory family feast on Thanksgiving day. However, it is difficult to estimate how many make the most of the opportunity for expressing gratitude to God. A very helpful way to do so is to set aside some time before the holiday to find a quiet place and engage in thoughtful reflection on our blessings. As an illustration, I offer a few of the personal memories of special people and moments for which I am most grateful.
When I was nine and trying to understand why my parents were divorcing, I was feeling sorry for myself. Realizing this, my forthright Italian grandmother said something that to the modern ear may sound odd, even harsh—“Vincent, remember this—self-pity stinks.” I’m not sure I understood or appreciated those words then, but I certainly have over time. Thank you, Lord, for that good woman and her honest bluntness that served me better than “Poor Vincent” ever could have.
From that time until I went to college, I lived in the Catskill Mountains with my father’s partner ‘s family. His wife, Edith, their daughter, and I were together all week; my father and his partner worked far away and were with us only on weekends. Edith was not only my surrogate mother but also the most important teacher I ever had. She taught me the meaning of goodness, kindness, thoughtfulness, love, and the meaning of self-sacrifice—occasionally by her words, always by her example. Thank you, Lord, most profoundly, for the gift of Edith.
In my first year of college, I had an English instructor who both impressed his classes with his love of the language and inspired emulation. Sadly, a year or two later, he lost his teaching position after being arrested in a gambling raid. After I graduated, I took a job as a social worker and found to my surprise that he also worked there. One day in the office, he came over to me and whispered, “Vince, don’t waste your talent the way I did.” We were simply co-workers, not friends, and I was moved that he would be so kind and self-revealing. Soon afterward, I enrolled in graduate school. Thank you, Lord, for inspiring that good man to give me that life-changing insight.
Years later, as a young professor and advisor to the Newman Club on my campus, I worked with that organization’s chaplain. Having earlier been a chaplain in a well-known mental institution in New York City, he told me many stories, the most memorable of which was his experience with a comatose patient. Day after day, month after month, he would visit that patient, pray aloud, and talk about the news, the weather, how the Yankees were doing, and so on. The man never looked at him, never even blinked. After a time, the priest began to wonder whether he was foolish to spend time with him. Then one day when he entered the room, the man had come out of the coma and spoke: “Father, I thank you with all my heart for having treated me as a person when everyone else treated me as an object. You made my isolation bearable.” I have a special reason for being grateful for this story. Many years later, when my wife reached an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s, recalling it helped me to realize that no matter how greatly her mental functions were declining, she was still present and still the same person created in God’s image. Thank you, Lord, for that good priest and his moving story.
I have many other people and circumstances to be thankful for, some of them only vicariously. In that category are two of many authors that have brought me joy and understanding and deepened my faith. One is the one-time poet laureate of Great Britain, John Masefield; another, the brilliant philosopher and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl.
I remember Masefield for one poem in particular—C.L.M. The title represents his mother’s initials. Though only five stanzas in length, it is both meaningful and moving. The poem recounts what his mother did for him, then reflects on his failure to make his life reflect his gratitude. The final line is powerful in its simplicity: “O grave, keep shut lest I be shamed.” Thank you, Lord, both for this talented poet and for enabling me to read and be moved by his words.
My gratitude for Viktor Frankl is for many of his insightful books, but especially for one, Man’s Search for Meaning, which tells the story of his years in Nazi concentration camps. Before the war, he had been a colleague of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, but came in time to reject their views on the main drive in humankind—Freud said it is sex, Adler said power, Frankl believed it is the search for meaning. Then came the war and he was arrested and taken to a concentration camp, as were his parents (who died there). In the suffering that he and the other prisoner’s endured, he found that long after the sex urge and the power urge had been quieted, the urge to find meaning remained. In fact, the more suffering they endured, the stronger that urge became. Frankl survived the camps and wrote many books on this and related topics. Thank you, Lord, for the life and works of Viktor Frankl, which have been a blessing to me and countless others around the world.
These are just a few of the people and things for which I am grateful. There are many others, including family, friends, my Catholic faith, and this wonderful country with its freedoms and opportunities. And the longer I reflect on them, the more blessings come to mind. May your reflections this Thanksgiving season be as numerous and meaningful as mine.