“How was your weekend?” Dad asked.
“Fine,” I said. “We didn’t do much; the lake yesterday in the morning then cooked out some steaks in the evening. Today it was church in the morning, then the park, and now I’m grilling again.”
My tone of voice conveyed my assessment of the weekend winding down: pretty pedestrian. No “wow,” just another weekend.
A few days later I was at a wedding reception held in a grand old home from the turn of the century, now turned into a bed and breakfast. Painted along the top of the walls in the sitting room were lines from an Emily Dickinson poem:
Eden is the old-fashioned House
We dwell in everyday
Without suspecting our abode
Until we drive away
In a moment it struck me how true it was in my life, how many blessings I have been given, and how I take them so much for granted. My wife and I and our children are all in good health, we live in a comfortable house that’s dry in the rain, warm in the winter, and secure in the dark of night. We have plenty of food (and good food at that). We have our extended families and friends. We live in a country that’s safe and free, where we can pursue the life we choose without threat or coercion. We are free to practice our religion (which means a lot more than the “freedom of worship” that is sometimes peddled as a sanitized and regulation-ready alternative). We are free to speak the truth without being thrown in jail. We don’t fear being gunned down or having our homes burned because we are Christian. We don’t fear that when we are expecting another baby armed government agents will drag us away to kill the child in her mother’s womb and then forcibly sterilize us. Nor do we fear that the government will seize our pre-school aged toddlers to begin indoctrinating in military service. We don’t fear starvation, pestilence, or disease. Many people in the world (probably most) do have to fear at least some of these things (and probably many of them).
Once there was a priest from Nigeria assigned as associate pastor of our suburban parish. His brother had also been a priest, and was martyred for the Faith inNigeria. Before our associate pastor came toAmerica, his bishop inNigeriarequested volunteers for a missionary assignment. It was widely expected that this meant going to minister to Catholics in the same region where Christians were being massacred and where our associate pastor’s brother had been killed. Knowing this full well, our associate pastor volunteered. Surprise: instead he was sent to a sleepy little parish in the suburbs of the American Midwest. That’s how he came to be inAmerica.
He was in our parish about three years, when he responded to another request for missionaries. Again, it was expected that he was being sent into danger inNigeria. I shook hands with him after his last mass, and couldn’t help but be stunned that this man was knowingly going where in all probability he would be killed. And he was doing it voluntarily. And with a smile! He actually seemed eager to go. It was a tremendous witness in the midst of our largely secularized culture grown comfortable and, as Father Barron termed it, “complacent in its finitude.”
As it turned out, our associate pastor was in for another surprise. Like St. Anthony ofPadua, our priest’s missionary fields seemed elusive. This time he was sent to become a U.S. Army chaplain. He was probably of exactly the sort of mettle needed to effectively minister to soldiers in uniform. God puts His people where He needs them, even if it isn’t where they expected to go. I’ve taken our former associate pastor’s surprising series of assignments as proof that courage and a willingness to follow God can lead us to adventures we never expected.
I’ve often wondered what he thought of his time in our parish. I doubt he took the Faith for granted, or the freedom to practice it.
Thanksgiving is an American holiday. Once when I was inHollandwith an exchange group, I met a Dutch engineer who, upon encountering a bunch of Americans, told us about his one and only Thanksgiving. It was twenty years before, with some expat Americans who were working on the same large scale engineering project as he was in aMiddle Eastcountry. The Americans put together a make-do Thanksgiving dinner of chili and pizza (apparently turkey and pumpkins were scarce in theMiddle East), and invited him to join them. The Dutchman still remembered his singular Thanksgiving experience fondly. Even though he never got to taste a genuine American turkey with all the trimmings, he associated Americans with this unique holiday. Maybe Thanksgiving is so distinctively an American holiday because we Americans have so much to be thankful for.
Of course freedom isn’t free. That weekend I told my Dad about while grilling in the back yard, which had seemed so pedestrian to me but which in actually was so blessed, was the result of the struggle and sacrifice of many people who fought, generation after generation, in places foreign and domestic, to win and preserve the freedom which they handed on to me, the freedom which makes possible the life that I now enjoy. That freedom was given to me as a gift by others who earned it (sometimes at great cost to themselves), and entrusted it to us in this generation to safeguard during our brief time. And as Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is a fragile thing.” It’s never achieved once and for all. It requires constant care and tending, preservation and defending. Reagan explained:
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.
As Wayne LaPierre expressed it: “Freedom is never an achieved state; like electricity, we’ve got to keep generating it or the lights go out.”
Having children really brings that point home. It’s like Gandalf told Bilbo Baggins at the end of The Hobbit. In The Hobbit, Bilbo and his companions succeeded against all odds, surviving many perils by a hairbreadth to at last triumph over the forces of evil and win the great treasure. Once the victory was secured, Gandalf told Bilbo: “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?”
As a parent, I got my answer to Gandalf’s question when I was putting one of our daughters to sleep at night. She was about one year old, and I was rocking her in the chair. She snuggled into me, looked up and said, “Happy, happy,” with a big smile on her face and a twinkle in her eyes. Then she put her head on my chest and fell asleep, still smiling.
No, the blessings of America were not created just for my personal comfort and ease. Nor are they to be used or bargained away by me at my own private pleasure for my own personal considerations. The blessings ofAmericaare put into our hands for a time, but we hold them in trust for others. We can’t know all the designs of God, or all the ways God will use us to touch the lives of others, or what all the ramifications will be from our faithfully discharging the responsibilities He has given us. They will probably extend far beyond anything we can imagine. But whatever their ultimate reach may be, we know where it all starts. As Mother Teresa said: “Love begins by taking care of the closest ones — the ones at home.” Our own children, those little ones entrusted to our care for so short a time, are among those intended to benefit from the blessing passed on to us by those who have gone before us.
The story of America is an amazing one — a miraculous one, the story of an angel in a whirlwind. Let’s hope and pray — and work, and fight, and sacrifice — to keep that story — our story — alive for another generation. That’s the responsibility entrusted to us. As also is the responsibility of preparing our children to do the same thing in their time, to preserve the gift of freedom for those who will come after them. As our unique American holiday fast approaches, let us thank our Creator for the blessings given to us and our great nation, and pray for our angel in the whirlwind, the guardian angel of America, and give thanks for all those helping our angel in the battle to preserve this nation under God, with life and liberty for all, and ask God for the strength and courage we need to do our part in preserving those blessings in the days ahead.