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Cultivating Thankful Hearts

A simple ‘thank you’ can express the meaning of life

By Mike Phelan

Where does your heart lie this Thanksgiving? At a dinner table with family and loved ones, or at a mall with frenzied sale searchers? Considering the fact that a number of major stores are opening their doors at 6 p.m. on Thursday, it seems that shopping is the priority for millions of Americans, a new holiday activity we might call “Thanks-getting.” Old Scrooge would be pleased.

Phelan Family

Like so many other areas of life today, thoughtful Christian parents have their domestic church work cut out for them, seeking to maintain the sacred space of their home and helping their children to understand the importance of thankfulness or gratitude. Here too, we who have the privilege of guiding a Catholic home must firmly state, “Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (see Joshua 24:15).

Rabbi Abraham Heschel famously said of the Sabbath, and even of secular holidays such as Thanksgiving, that setting these days aside gives us “cathedrals in time.” That is, keeping these days free of the frenetic activity of work, shopping and selling reserves a sacred and beautiful space for our most precious relationships — our relationships to God, family and friends.

David L. Schindler, former dean of the Knights of Columbus-sponsored John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family in Washington D.C., is a man who radiates fatherhood, his students will tell you. One of his memorable exhortations has stuck with me as my children have grown. “Teaching your children, repeatedly and consistently, to say ‘thank you’ for even the smallest favors is more than teaching them good manners. You are teaching them the meaning of life.”

Indeed, one of the clearest facts about each person’s life is that he did not create himself and does not keep himself in existence. In other words, I recognize the reality of all existence when I realize that I owe my life to someone else. A child says more than he knows when he states in anger to his parents, “I didn’t ask to be born!” The deeper truth is that I am a gift to myself and to others. When this fact is not only acknowledged but embraced and consciously lived out, the only proper response is gratitude. It is part of God’s plan that people who are thankful as a way of life also tend to be happy.

All parents want their children to be happy. But our consumer culture tempts them – and us – to seek happiness in the next toy, appliance or trendy vacation. Certainly the I-Phone 6 will give meaning to my life! But stuff never satisfies the soul. Other than a habit of prayer, no orientation will assure our happiness more than a virtuous, constant disposition of gratitude, of thanksgiving.

So we teach our children patiently to say, “Thank you,” as we strive to remain thankful ourselves. One thing we may want to give thanks for this Thursday is our Catholic faith, remembering that it is a gift that offers great blessings.

Let’s be thankful also for the Year of Faith, a gift from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that was brought to fulfillment by Pope Francis. This has been a challenging year for us as a Church and for all Catholics as we seek to live faithfully in a culture that seems set against the tenets of our faith. Yet the good God is with us, even more in our trials, as Pope Francis pointed out.

In his homily referencing at the closing Mass for the Year of Faith, the feast of Christ the King, the Holy Father spoke about the Good Thief on the cross while reminding us of the superabundance of God’s graces. “God’s grace is always greater than the prayer which sought it,” he explained. “The Lord always grants more than what he has been asked: you ask him to remember you, and he brings you into his Kingdom!”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Mike Phelan, Director of Marriage and Respect Life for the Diocese of Phoenix, holds a master’s degree from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America. He and his wife of 18 years, Sharon, live with their six children in Mesa, Arizona.