Tag Archives: Gratitude

Seeing all of life through the banquet lens

“As Richard Rohr often reminds us, we see things not as they are, but as we are. Lately, I’ve been trying to see things through the banquet lens. Surely, that was one of Jesus’ best images for his reign: a table overflowing with favorite foods, wines gleaming like rubies in glass goblets.”

Check out the rest of Kathy Coffey’s new article, “Seeing all of life through the banquet lens” on the NCRC website.

A Tribute to Sister Mary Helen Rogers, Part 2

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series.  Read part one here.

Fast-forward to “Granny’s” 98th birthday. For the event, several of us traveled to the motherhouse in Indiana where she’d retired with many of her friends. Even in old age, they were still remarkably gracious ladies. Within minutes of our arrival, a cart appeared with sandwich fixings, cold drinks and beer. (They’d never been overly pious, these veterans of tough missions.) One sister spoke fondly of her work with H’mong refugees, who in gratitude had given her a H’mong name which translated to “Sister Umbrella.” The umbrella not only symbolized their new life in the U.S., but also her kind protection, shelter in a strange place.

May aunt was almost totally deaf, but she didn’t let that isolate her. At the slightest provocation she’d launch into hysterical stories, like her puzzlement when a poor family in San Antonio had gratefully brought the sisters a live chicken. Or the time the bishop, thrilled with his new television, invited the sisters to share the wealth. Unfortunately, their little town didn’t yet have a channel, so they tried to sit appreciatively through snow on the screen and static in the air.  Later, when he’d watch his cowboy shows upstairs, her job was distracting visitors for an hour, trying to convince them he was praying, and disguising the thrumming of horse hooves overhead.

A frequent refrain when she described her many kinds of service: “it was such a privilege.” Never a complaint, when there must have been plenty of irritations, frustrations and tragedies. She quoted a hymn which might sound cheesy now, but which fit her perfectly: What more could Jesus do? How many more blessings could there be? Many of her friends had died, but she reveled in the present moment. Even in her walker, she gave us a tour that exhausted the young folk, and made sure we had our afternoon snack of cookies and Cokes. Bent over with osteoporosis, she nevertheless bent even further to touch the arm of a sister whose mind was fine but whose body was almost paralyzed. As she made a “date” for a chat later, she was the portrait of compassion.

The large campus which the sisters run is noted for its hospitality. In cooperation with Lutheran Services, they offer retreats for women veterans returning from deployment. How peaceful it must be, I thought, after Iraq or Afghanistan: these gardens, beehives, ponds and grasslands. Each sister, living or dead, has a tree with her name hanging on a small plaque on the trunk. For Arbor Day, local schoolchildren identify the wide variety of trees, hike through areas set aside for conservation, and take home their own sapling. Their labyrinth is open to all and many have entered this form of moving meditation that dates back to medieval cathedrals. The morning I walked it, grass, leaves and pine needles were gleaming with tiny drops from a recent rain. Each branch, each step bejeweled: it must have been an image for the life of grace, the kind of lives these sisters had so gratefully embraced.

To look back over 98 years with obvious joy and appreciation must be a great gift. Always the Irish storyteller with perfect timing and cadence, Granny loved to embellish precious memories and entertain a new, youthful audience. She even bragged about the Babe Ruth autograph she’d gotten on a baseball, waiting outside the ballpark as a girl. But the story she told most proudly was of a small, shy boy, asking her to be his grandma. Now 37, he got misty-eyed, as did his wife, who was hearing it for the first time.

Christmas Themes, Part 1

Sorry the Christmas posts are late, but the illustrious editor spent WAY too much time playing with grandchildren over the holiday….

From THE BEST OF BEING CATHOLIC, Chapter 11 (Orbis Books, 2012)

Every time it happens, I catch my breath. Westbound flights to California pass over the Grand Canyon in silence. Beneath us stretches a marvelous sculpture of brilliant red rock, carved over centuries by the Colorado River. J. B. Priestley called it “all Beethoven’s nine symphonies in stone and magic light.”

Seven million years of geological history lie exposed beneath the plane, and the pilot never mentions it. Passengers on Flight 1183 to San Diego or 1719 to Santa Ana doze, read magazines or work on their laptops. “Hey!” I’d shout if security wouldn’t arrest me. “There are only seven natural wonders of the world, and you’re missing one of them!”

Are we equally oblivious to Christmas when it rolls around again? Some things are so important that once a year, we must make a conscious effort to remember them. The themes of attention, trust and celebration are so frail they tend to get swamped in seasonal busy-ness. But they are so powerful they can sustain us through the rest of the year.

A certain amnesia is healthy for humans: the mind simply can’t hold all the details, phone numbers, passwords, jingles, events, etc. that threaten to clog and stall it. It’s as natural to erase the mental clutter as to clean out the garage.

But the hazard of this natural forgetfulness is that it works against our remembering how we’ve negotiated difficult passages before: through illness, job loss, divorce, grief or moving—so we can do it again. Christmas, like the weekly Eucharist, recalls our survival stories.


During Advent, the themes like those of music, begin to build gently, then reach a climax in Christmas. First comes our transition from ordinary time. Isaiah sounds the alert:

“A voice cries out: In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord” (40:3). Notice the placement of the colon. The good news comes first to the desert where it’s most needed. There, all is bleak and empty, unless you’ve got a long extension cord and a lot of water. It’s a wasteland without borders where nothing works the way it does in cozy civilization.

We’re always in one wilderness or another: in one year, it’s drought, dismal economy and widespread joblessness. Another year, it might be poor health or the death of a friend. Yet the advice remains the same: always look for the water sources. One year we’re sustained by kind people; another, by the hope of recovery.

Furthermore, Isaiah continues, “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The purpose of a highway is to keep moving, not to get snagged or stuck in the desert. The prophet recalls our high calling as God’s construction crew, with lots of work to do. We are not to get sucked into anxiety or worry about what we can’t control anyway. The desert plays its part in awakening us, but we don’t want to stall there.

Where are we getting bogged down, building roadblocks to God? For some people, it’s depression or a hurt they can’t release. For others, a debilitating illness. Even innocent victims of crime can feel responsible, and guilt or shame drains energy. When we’re trapped in terrible circumstances, we can remember the Jews in the Nazi camps. Some went to the ovens angry and bitter; others went singing the psalms. When the problem is unavoidable, which response do we choose?

Each year Christmas reminds us: whatever it is that threatens to sap our strength, we needn’t get trapped in that vortex. We are beloved of God, centers of freedom and fidelity.

Throughout the Genesis account of creation, one refrain sounds over and over: “and God saw that it was good.” The word “good” refers to the stars and sea, the land and plants, the rivers and animals. But as the account reaches its crescendo, the creation of human beings, it shifts to the Hebrew word “tov.” This means blessed, growing towards completeness. While flowers and fish have reached their natural perfection—they can’t get any better by making retreats or taking classes—humans are still in process. We always have the potential to grow into what God envisioned  at our conceptions.

Advent: A Season of Surprise (in 3 Parts)

This chapter from THE BEST OF BEING CATHOLIC, originally published in ST. ANTHONY MESSENGER, takes on new meaning as Pope Francis calls God a surprise…

During an Advent session at Mater Dolorosa Parish in San Francisco, one lady stoutly maintained she hated surprises. During a raffle afterwards, she won the turkey!

Such unexpected events help prepare us for Advent, the season of a surprising spirituality. God who could have become human as a respected philosopher like Plato, a military leader like Alexander the Great, or a beautiful queen like Cleopatra, comes instead as a helpless baby. All the Beauty and Power in the universe becomes vulnerable and dependent. Furthermore, God pitches a tent, not only “among” us, but “in” us, as some translations say. What an odd residence for the King of Kings!

As Gaudium et spes says, God “has in a certain way united himself with each individual. He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will and with a human heart he loved.” (22) Advent is meant as a time of preparation for that incarnation event, but how can we prepare for something so impossible to imagine?

One answer lies in the direct interplay between scripture and our lived experience. It seems as if God always make an entrance through the door behind us, the place where we weren’t looking. That pattern, also found in the Bible, sensitizes us to look beyond the tried-and-true, socially sanctioned, boring, repetitious rut. As some say, God lurks in the cracks between certainties.

Promise came to the Samaritan woman in a surprising way (John 4: 7-42). She trudged to the well as she had nine million other times, but there she met a stranger who snagged her attention. His request was preposterous: this guy without a bucket wasn’t supposed to use the vessel of a less orthodox Jew! Nor was he supposed to talk with a woman in public. He didn’t make a demand, but suggested a possibility: if only you knew the gift of God…

It’s the kind of tantalizing potential children suspect before Christmas. If only you knew what was in that large box with the intriguing tag… How could the woman at the well resist such a mysterious invitation?

Until then, she’d probably done what she had to do to survive: endless drudgery, reliance on men since she had few rights, enduring the sneers of self-righteous, married-only-once women. The stranger offers her another way, an inner source of vitality that will never dry up or disappoint. He presents God’s life in terms she understands. Who appreciates a fountain more than a desert dweller? She can practically taste fresh drops on her tongue.

Jesus himself isn’t immune to the effects of a long, hot walk. Angels don’t rush in with iced pitchers and shading umbrellas. Like us, he depends on human beings to relieve his human needs. In the architecture of John’s gospel, the request recurs during the crucifixion (“I thirst.” –19:28). Furthermore, he doesn’t use flowery camouflage, but speaks the need, simply and directly. As St.   Augustine pointed out, Jesus’ weariness may spring symbolically from his long journey into humankind, with its flaws and evils.

We all function in familiar grooves; it’s how we organize our time. Especially during this super-busy season, various chores compete for our attention, screaming, “Attend to me!” “No, me!” “I’m next!” Like a chorus of toddlers, all those jobs demand time and energy. It’s tempting to strangle those who want us to be still and quiet in Advent prayerfulness.

And yet. Scripture scholar Thomas Brodie in The Gospel According to John says the woman at the well was too preoccupied with daily necessities. She had to learn to relax and enjoy God. For people obsessed with responsibility, as many are before Christmas, it’s wondrous relief to let God be God. And one of God’s hallmarks seems to be this propensity to surprise.

In the final judgment scene, both the “sheep” and the “goats” are surprised by the king’s words (Matthew 25: 31-46). Apparently what they thought important isn’t, and vice-versa. “You mean that pbj I made my daughter? That tea I gave the repair man? That’s where you were? Not in the church attendance, the solemn committee meetings, the dutiful donations?”

What may block our awareness is the same demand that swamped the Samaritan woman: intense, seasonal. Picture them jostling, all contenders for our attention, but ultimately imposters. Someone must muscle them aside if the King is to claim the throne, centrality in our lives. Then, as the Buddhists say, if we think we’ve achieved that, we probably aren’t there yet. Surprise!

To be continued…

Feasting on Thanks, Part 2

Thanks in Unlikely Places

Some may feel that they don’t have a lot on the list to be grateful for.

But as Paul told the Thessalonians, “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18). No matter how desperate a situation may seem, there’s always room in it for thanks—or a scavenger hunt to find something good there. A few examples, probably from worse times and places than ours:

• In the letter to Philippians, “joy” and “rejoice” appear 16 times, despite the fact Paul wrote from prison, awaiting a trial which could’ve led to his death.

• Corrie ten Boom, author of THE HIDING PLACE and survivor of a Nazi concentration camp was grateful for the fleas, because their presence meant the German guards would leave prisoners alone.

• “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into grateful joy,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who remained grateful even until his execution by Nazis, despite having to tell his fiancée goodbye.

• Those who survived the terrible tragedy of 9/11/01 in New York City were more resilient and less prone to depression if they could somehow find gratitude in the ruins. While a mixture of positive and negative feelings seems natural, it’s heartening to read remarkable relief despite terrible circumstances. One who was in the World Trade Center that morning said: “Each day that I stay as a guest on this green Earth suddenly seems like outrageous good fortune.”

Practical Steps

So how does a busy family fit shared meals into a packed schedule? Most families can spin out a litany of reasons why they can’t eat together: soccer games, meetings, choir practice, travel, work, etc. etc. But forgiving the pun, table the excuses. They all seem pretty flimsy when held up against the studies done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Their surveys found that the more often a family has dinner together, the less likely their teen is to smoke, drink or use drugs. Each time the family dines together reduces the risk of children’s substance abuse. Nothing in the reports suggests it must be a five-course meal; macaroni and cheese is fine. What matters is telling the stories, chewing over the day, being nurtured together.

Can gratitude be incorporated into a tight calendar too? Many reasons to do so come from Robert Emmons. His book THANKS! says multiple clinical studies have proven that a regular practice of gratitude can elevate what psychologists call the “set point” of happiness. Though a devastating spinal cord injury can dramatically decrease happiness, and winning the lottery increase it, most people over the subsequent six months will adapt and return to the “set point.”

Grateful thinking helps people extract the most possible enjoyment from their circumstances. It prevents adaptation (returning to the “set point”) and improves mood because people don’t  take blessings for granted.

To receive these benefits, giving thanks beyond one day in November must become a deliberate habit. Thus, Emmons recommends a regular practice such as keeping a gratitude journal, naming the three best things that happen each day, writing a letter to or visiting someone we appreciate. A family can do this together, drawing or writing blessings on a big piece of newsprint hung jauntily on the refrigerator. Or make placemats from paper. In the center write THANKS, then surround the word with drawings or names of gifts: My dog. Music. Naps. Hot soup. (Laminate so they’ll last a while.) These practices can cascade throughout the month, becoming an avalanche of thanks by the feast itself. Seeing so many blessings, most people would want to continue every month. Bon Appetit!

Feasting on Thanks

Feasting on Thanks

by Kathy Coffey

Part 1 of an article which originally appeared in St. Anthony Messenger 

Often when asked to name a special family time, peoples’ responses cluster around meals: Christmas dinner, birthday parties, a vacation cook-out by the shore, a wedding banquet. Their intuition is sound: these special times are also sacred times. What better day to celebrate that connection than Thanksgiving?

It’s a holiday designed for thanks and feasting (though turkey and football have become part of the cultural accretion). The first Pilgrims who celebrated it were simply glad they’d survived a precarious ocean crossing in 1620, and had harvested enough corn to carry them through winter. They were grateful NOT for blissful, pain-free experience, but for the presence of God in whatever circumstance they met.

The Biblical Background

While atheists and agnostics celebrate Thanksgiving, people with religious ties are more likely to do so. A close connection between food and thanks is old as the Book of Wisdom: “That your children whom you loved might learn, Lord, that it is not the various kinds of fruits that nourish, but your word that preserves those who believe you!” (16:26)

Meals and gratitude are interwoven throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Apparently meals were so important to Jesus, his critics accused him of being a glutton and drunkard. When he wanted to define himself in terms of abundance, he told a hungry people who wanted the manna their ancestors had eaten: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (Jn. 6:30-35).

When Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes, he first gave thanks (Jn. 6:11). He followed the practice of his Jewish ancestors at the Passover meal when he gave thanks for bread before breaking it, and for wine before drinking it. For him, eating and thanking were intertwined activities. When his disciples thought he was a ghost, he asked for something to eat, and they gave him baked fish. Because he knew the sacred context for eating, he might be saddened by how thoughtlessly we drive through and chow down.

After Paul’s startling discovery on the road to Damascus that he’d been persecuting the wrong people, Acts records his healing, baptism, and a key detail: “when he had eaten, he recovered his strength” (Acts 9:19). He then poured energy into converting most of the known world. Who cooked that meal? And what was on the menu?  To Be Continued...