For the second year in a row, I will miss spending my Thanksgiving weekend with the monks of Gethsemani. Last year my cancer treatment kept me away, and this year the COVID-19 lockdown prevents my being with them. In the past, it has been a life-giving routine for me to travel there after the Thursday morning Thanksgiving Mass at the Cathedral and stay until Saturday night. The routine always included a chance for me to be in dialogue with the monks on Friday evening for about 45 minutes.
I was pleased that Abbot Elias recently asked me to visit the monastery safely for the annual dialogue, assuring me that we would use the main chapel and honor physical distancing. I did so on Sunday afternoon, November 1, after the dedication of the Daniel Rudd marker at Saint Joseph cemetery in Bardstown.
Among the conversations was preparing for Thanksgiving and the reality that COVID-19 really calls us to physical distancing but not social distancing. We are social beings who will shrivel up if we do not keep connection with others. Ironically, the contemplative monks of Gethsemani know exactly what it means to be creative in simultaneously maintaining social connectedness and physical distance amidst their silent lifestyle.
What is called for this year is great creativity as we seek to be grateful on this Thanksgiving Day. Many of us will depart from time-honored traditions because of COVID-19, but what we cannot sacrifice is the movement of our heart that is captured each Thanksgiving. It is that clear movement, stirring up attitudes and litanies of gratitude, which always seem to lead to generosity and burst forth into joy. Thanksgiving comes just at the right time, just as we are ready to break open a new church year with the season of Advent, a season of hope and joy.
Two ways that I have traditionally sought to exercise acts of gratitude and generosity have been addressing Christmas cards and planning my Advent budget. Although we call them Christmas cards, the actual action for me in signing the cards is an Advent exercise. Quite often, this is my only contact with friends, family and loved ones for an entire year, and so I try to make that exercise a reflective one.
It is also a time for generosity. My “end of the year” Advent budget is simply determining the amount that I can give away and then entering into the adventure of identifying great needs. There is something about gratitude that leads to generosity and that opens our world to joy. While there are many movements of grace in our life, surely this is one of the greatest.
This October we conducted a survey of all 110 parishes to determine the effects of COVID-19 on ministry and resources. I was so impressed by the creative ways in which ministries continued at the parish and archdiocesan levels, and I was equally impressed by the ways in which free will offerings continue to provide support for these necessary ministries. With 81 parishes reporting, nearly half of our parishes are experiencing at least 90 % of the support, and four-fifths are experiencing at least 75% of normal contributions. Parishes also are seeing a good number of participants through in-person, physically distanced Masses and live streaming of Masses. While we yearn to return to being with each other — since we are social beings, the living Body of Christ — I must praise the resilience of so many amid the crisis.
When we give a gift to others, of course, we hope to have a positive effect on the lives of people being served. This is one of the attractive means of the Catholic Services Appeal each year in which faithful from throughout the Archdiocese freely participate in providing services, through Catholic Charities or other ministries, for people whom they may never meet.
However, we also know that the act of giving enriches our own lives and makes our hearts grow wide. I forget who said this: you actually can take your money with you when you die, but you have to give it away so that another will carry it to heaven for you. Jesus told the rich young man and each of us to sell our possessions and give to the poor and “… you will have treasure in heaven.” (Matthew 19:21)
May you have a great Thanksgiving! Whatever adaptations you make to stay safe, please remember that physical distance is not the same as social distance. May your conjuring up a litany of gratitude to God open your heart to generously remembering others and allow the gift of joy to burst forth into your life.