Can we still be thankful when we suffer?
That’s the question I’ve been pondering as Thanksgiving approaches this year. In particular, I have in mind those good folks in our state and nation whose celebration of the holiday might be strained this year because they’re dealing with personal problems, economic woes and natural disasters.
I’m thinking of those individuals and families who lost so much as a result of Hurricane Sandy – individuals who lost personal possessions, businesses, homes, and, sadly, even loved ones, because of the ravages of a rogue and deadly weather system.
I’m thinking of the families in our community who are struggling with the profound consequences of long term unemployment, a debilitating situation that affects not only financial security, but relationships and personal well-being too.
I’m thinking of the men and women who show up every night at Emmanuel House, the emergency shelter for the homeless run by the Diocese of Providence, and other homeless across our state who lack even the most basic of material resources the rest of us take for granted everyday.
I’m thinking of the thousands of people who turn to the food pantries and soup kitchens run so generously by our parishes in every corner of Rhode Island, individuals caught in the tangled web of the long-lasting recession that has crippled our nation.
I’m thinking of the many people in our hospitals, hospices and nursing homes, folks dealing with serious, sometimes terminal illness, as well as the care givers and families who worry about the well-being of their loved ones.
How do all of these folks, and many others who have been dealt a bad hand, observe Thanksgiving this year? It’s completely understandable that their approach to the holiday might be muted, bittersweet, even a little bit cynical.
In a moment of discouragement, might they be tempted to echo the words of Job, from the book of the Bible that documents so powerfully the human experience of suffering: “I will give myself up to complaint; I will speak from the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God – do not put me in the wrong! Let me know why you oppose me?” (10: 1-2)
As their brothers and sisters in the human family, we need always to be mindful of those who suffer – in our local community, in our nation and around the world. We should seek to understand their plight, be attentive to their needs and offer them all the encouragement, personal support, material resources and prayers we can muster.
It seems to me, though, that it is only from the perspective of faith that we can be thankful in the face of suffering.
Suffering is never good, but it is relative. There’s always something to be grateful for, even in the worst of moments. Recall the parable of the man who complained that he had no shoes until he saw a man who had no feet. And closer to home, if I’m tempted to complain that my office is chilly because the furnace isn’t working, all I need to do is to look out my window to see the homeless guy sleeping on the cold concrete bench of Cathedral Square. I’ll be going home in a few minutes. He is home.
In the darkest of moments we need to trust, still, in the presence and Providence of God. Although He might seem to be absent, God never abandons us. Jesus told us, “Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more important than they?” (Mt 6: 26)
I know people who blame God whenever something goes wrong, but never give Him credit when things are going right. It’s a flawed sense of faith. They need to remember that both joy and sorrow are inevitable experiences of human life; that God is with us in good times and in bad. Again we can learn the lesson of Job, who in the midst of his profound suffering said: “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall go back again. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” (1: 21)
Suffering is never good, but it is redemptive. From the Christian perspective, moments of suffering and loss allow us to share in the Cross of Christ, and we believe that from the Cross came redemption and restoration, a brand new beginning. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who witnessed suffering and pain few of us will ever know, said, “Suffering will never be completely absent from our lives. If we accept it with faith, we are given the opportunity to share in the passion of Jesus and show Him our love.”
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, let’s take special note of our blessings and give thanks and praise to God. Thanksgiving is one of the best days of the year for Catholics to attend Holy Mass and receive the Eucharist – as you know the word itself means “thanksgiving.” And to put your faith into action, do something to share your gifts and blessings with someone else.
For those who are experiencing discouragement, suffering and sorrow at this time of the year, please know that your brothers and sisters are with you. And even more importantly, God is with you, now, more than ever. Blessed be the Name of the Lord!