Attitude of Gratitude

With Thanksgiving last week, there’s predictably been much talk of gratitude and thanks. Thankful for family and friends; thankful for the bounty of food we’re able to stuff ourselves with. This year, I’m also thankful to have a new job, where I am happier and more comfortable, and a new apartment that’s both bigger and closer to all those things and people I’m thankful for.

It’s hard, though, in those moments you don’t feel that gratitude. I barely remember the past couple months, between tying up loose ends at the old job, moving my life back to North Jersey, and figuring out the work commute from both towns during the transition. Even now that I’m mostly settled, I still want to settle, like unpacking and deciding where to hang my wall art. I haven’t given myself time to think.

Today I opened up my work calendar, the same paper calendar I’d used at the old job. There, I found a note to myself, something I’d jotted months ago for a project long since completed. It’s strange to find it now. It’s part of a “former life,” a period that’s already fading into memory. Even a shiny new life chapter doesn’t close the previous one. It stays with you, constantly affecting the way you think and act. You want to keep those memories in the past, but you can’t. I have a habit of ignoring things I don’t want to face, like they don’t exist. Like how I just closed the page of that calendar and went back to work.

It’s nice to remember good things, but often hard to confront—never mind be thankful for—the bad. The stupid mistakes you made; people who’d hurt you; jobs you simply did rather than enjoyed. None of us wants to admit a mistake or waste of time. Especially as we age, it’s hard to consider maybe you shouldn’t had spent those years the way that you did.

But in some strange way, I am thankful for those situations. It might stir up old, potentially negative memories, but they’re a reminder that God has moved me past them. It felt impossible at the time, and it was impossible for little old me. But God knows my weaknesses, and He nudges me when I need it. I can’t put my life on hold just because I’m afraid; He’ll plow me through the tough stuff whether I want to or not. It’s not life if you don’t try to live, and you’re certainly not going to succeed if you don’t try.

in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
—1 Thessalonians 5:18

There’s always the good and the bad. I’ll have bad times in this new chapter, too. Already, my bathroom sink is clogged and I left my favorite lunch bag on the morning train. It’s a bummer. But it’s a part of life, and I’m thankful for that. I’m thankful for a bountiful meal with my family, and for the family who couldn’t be there. I’m thankful that I have the means to buy lunch when I accidentally lose mine. I’m even thankful that I’m feeling tired right now, that I have the first beginnings of something that might be a cold, because it’s made me slow down and take a rest.

Busily unpacking all those moving boxes is fun, but so is sitting on the couch in my new living room. I placed an order last week and put the wrong address in the shipping instructions, which sent my package to a house down the street. It was inconvenient, but I got off the train and took a walk. It had snowed that day, the first of the season, and the roads were mostly empty. I took in the snow-covered sights of my new town, then met a neighbor as I took my package off his porch.

Not everything has a discernible “good side” from our point of view. But God’s working in the background. Give thanks in everything. I’m not always good at that. But maybe this week, with all those little irksome moments, can continue to teach me how.

Friendship and Tolerance

[We live in] a culture in which about all that can be conceded is that there may be your truth and my truth, what good’s for you and what’s good for me. To assert that there might, in fact, be something properly described as the truth is not only considered odd; it’s usually considered intolerant, and, in a culture that values “tolerance” (or what it imagines to be tolerance) above all else, to be called “intolerant” is about as bad as it gets.
—George Weigel, Letters to a Young Catholic

I almost went on a social media rampage this week. It was over a seemingly innocent comment, but it put me over the edge. How can my friends not understand my principles by now? How could they so boldly suggest I engage in something contrary to my beliefs? But it didn’t take long for me to understand—they simply don’t know, because I’m not that vocal about it.

Most of the time, my vocal reach stops at simply stating I’m a Christian. That alone ruffles some feathers. I’ll preach the wonders of Christmas and Easter, or I’ll post a pretty church on Instagram, but rarely do I publicly burst into Biblical song. I’m a loud and proud Catholic, and I love Jesus, but secretly. I’ve always been that way. I keep to myself. The hardest part about converting was telling people. It was a public declaration that I believe in something, a belief system that goes against the new majority.

We live in a culture of tolerance for all, but that acceptance has a limited reach. In fact, we haven’t achieved tolerance at all. We’ve just swapped things around: those who used to live in the cultural margins are now at its center, desperately trying to push everyone else into those recently-vacated shadows. We’ve created a society that tries too hard to be inoffensive, with no concept of truth or, honestly, morals. And this is difficult for someone like me, who is naturally inoffensive and doesn’t like to step on toes. The people I’d allowed to speak for me have quieted, or compromised to appease the masses, and I’m not bold enough to voice those unpopular opinions on my own.

Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ.
—Galatians 1:10

The Baptist church often preached that you’ll lose friends for your faith. At the time, my friend group seemed pretty tolerate despite our differences. We could have intelligent conversations that offered varying points-of-view. But looking back on it, I never participated. I enjoyed listening to the debates, but my Jesus-friendly perspective was pounced on. In retrospect, I understand why—I simply regurgitated what that church said, without doing any of my own research. But rather than try to explain and learn more, I remained quiet. I was a good friend.

But now, everyone is the “good friend.” The whole of society is afraid to speak up, to voice an opinion that opposes the norm. It’s intolerant. By being anti-abortion, we hate women. By suggesting trans people seek therapy before transitioning, we hate trans people. By saying climate has changed naturally over the course of millennia, we hate the Earth.

I don’t hate anyone, nor the whole of Creation. I have different views.

Jesus himself lost a lot of friends. He wasn’t intentionally controversial; he simply spoke the truth. He was crucified literally because people disagreed with him. Martyrs across the centuries died for this truth, but I can’t even face people maybe being upset with me. But that’s not being a good friend. To be loud and proud, I have to speak. I’ve never exactly been vocal, so that’s not easy for me to do. But we’re to practice true love and tolerance—including to those who have different views. And at the very least, I can try to stand up for myself and for God.

National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come. —Revelation 12:10

I didn’t expect to visit the National Shrine this past weekend. But we were lunching with a friend, who mentioned he’d visited the basilica, and there were hours to kill before our evening concert. So why not drive the extra twenty minutes to the largest Catholic Church in America?

I’ve spent much time at St. Patrick’s in New York, and visited three of the four major basilicas in Rome. I’ve seen more sacred art and stained glass than I can remember. So the National Shrine is almost deceptive, at first. It’s big, but it’s not flashy. It’s not overly ornate. But as we walked around, I noticed all the details—statues of saints and small side chapels. Mosaics that look like painted artwork. We sat for a while beneath a ceiling mosaic of Creation, of Adam and Eve surrounded by the oceans and the animals, protected by the hand of God.

I was told the basilica is “impressive.” I’ve seen impressive, but this one isn’t about the seeing. It’s a feeling, like God Himself is walking around with you. There’s no “wow” factor, until you really start to notice the details. And then it’s positively striking.

The most central mosaic sits behind the altar, and the one I kept circling back to—not just during my visit, but in reflection in the days since. I couldn’t figure it out, at first. It had to be Jesus, but didn’t look like the Jesus we’ve come to recognize. I thought it to be his Risen form, since his appearance changed after the Resurrection. That was an impressive enough interpretation, but the truth was even better.

Dominating the North Apse is Christ in Majesty, the Apocalyptic Christ. Perhaps the largest mosaic of Jesus in the world, the span from wounded hand to wounded hand measures 34 feet.
(National Shrine Interactive Map)

It’s almost uncomfortable to look at. It’s not Jesus as we know him, and he’s kind of mean-looking and judgmental. But that’s just what it is: the literal, ultimate judgment. There’s a whole great list of the mosaic’s details compared to scripture, which brings even more awe-inspired wonder to this 34-foot artwork.

We did some more wandering, including down into the crypt and the obligatory gift shop. But even as we left for the concert, “Christ in Majesty” lingered. Jesus is so often depicted as gentle and loving, which isn’t wrong. But the “Judgmental God” part gets overlooked. Maybe we conveniently forget, because death and judgement aren’t things we want to think about. But there it is—the largest mosaic of Jesus in the world.

I wish we’d had time to see more. The couple hours weren’t enough, and I don’t know the next time I’ll be in D.C. The National Shrine needs all day. I didn’t want to sit and pray, because I wanted to see all I could. But even walking around the nave is a type of prayer. Studying the artwork, and explaining what’s going on in each. Staring up at Creation, or at the majestic figure of the Risen Christ. It is… impressive.