The most frequently overlooked blessing
I don’t blame you if those thoughts cross your mind. They’ve certainly crossed mine. This week Americans celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, and it seems obligatory for every columnist, blogger, parent and preacher to say something about giving thanks. There’s really nothing new to say about it, is there? It would seem that there’s nothing else to be done but reach into a big bag of clichés, throw around a few trite phrases and then give thanks that we don’t have to think about Thanksgiving until next year.
It’s true—there’s not much new that can be said about gratitude in general or the Thanksgiving holiday in particular. But there is something original, something absolutely orginal that can be said about gratitude and Thanksgiving. To find it, we have to think about origins. We have to think beyond the question every parent dreads to hear (“Mom, Dad—where did I come from?”, that is, a question about proximate origins); we have to move beyond the question of our own origin to ask the question about the origin of everything. We have to ask the question of absolute origin, namely, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Yes, we believe as the Nicene Creed says that God created all that is “visible and invisible.” But why did God bother to create? God doesn’t need anyone or anything. An infinite, already perfect God can’t be perfected by or even added to by a finite creation. In other words there was no “payoff” for God to bring creation (and all creatures) into existence out of nothing. And yet God saw that what he made was good (Genesis 1:31).
To do something very good (in the case of bringing creation into existence out of nothing, this is something uniquely good that only God could do), and to do so while receiving any benefit is impossible—to act so is an instance of absolute generosity. If I give you a birthday present, however generous, it is a relative gift, because you must exist in order for me to give you the gift. But when God calls us into existence, there was literally nothing and no one before the call was given to receive the gift. In other words, we are recipients of an absolute, divine generosity. We could have done nothing to deserve the absolute gift of existence because we did not exist before we received the gift.
Think of it! Confronting the void of absolute nothing, we can echo God and say, “I am!” We are recipients of the absolute gift of existence—a gift of infinite generosity that we could not possibly deserve.
“All right, then, very nice and abstract—you’re a philosophy professor, aren’t you? But your thin words will bring no comfort to the hungry, the bereaved, the homeless, the sick, the dying. Word play while the hungry look upon the well fed who have the leisure to count their blessings? Is that what you’re offering?”
It’s true—these words I’ve written, on their own, will feed no one, clothe no one, and certainly bring no one back from the dead. But these words point, however bluntly or obliquely, to the worship-worthy truth that God created us out of nothing, for the sake of sheer generosity. The infinitely generous God can only want the best for us, and that is Himself.
As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches here in America, many (myself included) will pause and count blessings. Life, health, education, vocation, family, friends—I can come up with a long, long list of blessings. So many great goods that I cannot deserve! These very same goods—all of them—I will have to surrender at the time of my death (if not before). The gift I cannot lose, the only good of this life I will carry into the next will be the undeniable fact that God, in his infinite goodness, called me into existence out of nothing. That act of perfect generosity propels me toward him who is my perfection and fulfillment. Because of that I can give thanks for all lesser goods, all of which I must lose, and above all give thanks that I have hope for a good, a perfect good which cannot be taken away from me—and that good gift is God himself.
Sometime this week, no matter where you find yourself, whether crying tears of joy or sorrow, whether hungry or full, whether lost or at home, take some time to offer thankful worship to the living God who created you out of nothing and calls you to his infinite goodness.
When I write next, I will speak of the graces we may find in the season of Advent. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.
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