"I'm so blessed."
Those words arise spontaneously this Sunday morning -- 'Gaudete Sunday', in the Catholic Church, the third Sunday of Advent -- as I sit down to write this brief Christmas column. I am blessed to be doing so in excellent health, in a warm home perched on the edge of a pretty little lake in northern Rhode Island where I have come to rest for a few days.
"I'm so blessed."
So says former NFL tackle Richard Collier as quoted in the New York Times Sports section on Saturday. At 6' 7", 345 pounds, Collier was the "largest" member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that drafted him in 2006. He quickly became a magnet for his teammates, a focal point of lightheartedness, humor, and optimism. His career came to an end last September 2nd when he survived an armed assault outside a nightclub. Fourteen bullets slammed into his enormous frame, one of them severing his spinal cord. His left leg eventually had to be amputated above the knee as well.
Collier had gone from stocking produce at Wal-Mart in his native Shreveport, Louisiana to having a shot at being the starting left tackle for the Jaguars this season.
"I'm paralyzed, but I'm so blessed. I see so much promise in me," says Collier. "I lost a leg, but I gained so much more already," he says, as he softly strokes a small, silver cross hanging round his neck.
So, maybe that's the first thing I wish for this Christmas: that every human being, no matter what the sufferings that torment their lives, might be able to wake up one day soon, and discover that, notwithstanding all the negative things in their lives, they are nonetheless blessed -- blessed by that presence of a merciful God and Father who can be, ultimately, their safety net, who can clutch them in the hands of his merciful love.
I realize that for many this will not be easy.
It won't be easy for example for the thousands of human beings who, this very moment, are wasting away -- unbeknownst to most of the civilized world -- in the Gulags of North Korea. Shin Dong-hyuk -- who escaped at age 26 after being born in one of the internment camps might feel blessed. A recent Washington Post expose shared Shin's ordeal in horrific detail. "I never heard the word 'love' in the camp," says Shin who as a child recalled a "lucky day" when he chanced upon three grains of corn in a pile of cow dung, fished them out, cleaned them on his sleeve and ate them greedily. Often tortured himself, he was also forced to watch his mother and brother executed on the same day. Having escaped after living the first twenty-six years of his life in hell, today he is alive and free in South Korea. He marvels at the materialism that surrounds him and wonders why so few South Koreans really care about the plight of people like himself in the North.
I would have to tell Shin, if I ever met him that, tragically, it's not just South Koreans who don't think of you and your people. It's far too many people in all parts of the world who live absorbed in the immediacy of so many other pressing and important issues: the latest political scandal, the latest Wall Street scandal, whether we bailout the auto industry or not, and so on, and so on.
Who really takes time to worry about those suffering in hellholes like North Korean prison camps or in refugee camps in Darfur?
While people like Shin continue to languish, others wage the great battle of sanitizing American culture of its religious expressions of Christian origin -- especially now during the 'holiday season'. This time around, Washington D.C. was targeted for a $40,000.00 ad campaign by the American Humanist Association for ads proclaiming, "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake." The ads currently appear on D.C. buses and will run through the end of December. Organizers say that by the ads, they are only "trying to plant a seed of rational thought and critical thinking" in people's minds.
Thanks, guys. Absolutely brilliant: make us more rational by suggesting we dump God and adopt good-ism; elevate our capacity for critical thinking by insulting our intelligence with banal bus ads.
No, we don't need good-ism. We don't need a quasi-religion of niceties. We don't need to encourage more abandonment of organized religion to embrace vacuous "spirituality."
Of course, there are many problems within organized religions as we know all too well. Within our Christian communions, and urgently within the Catholic Church, we are in dire need of cleansing, of repentance, of purification, of going into the desert, of entering into the depths of prayer, of God's Word, of returning to the roots of our very beginnings to rediscover what God intended for the people he would unite into his Ecclesia -- his Church.
That's why, this Christmas, maybe my wish list boils down to just one thing. If I could put it into just two words, what I ask for all of us, is interior depth: to flee often from the multiple layers of noise in our lives, and to be persons of quiet and recollection, lovers of silence; to draw from a deep personal reservoir of Christian agape, and with that Christian charity, to triumph consistently over the lower urges of our pride, our self-love, our vanity, and our will to dominate; to drink regularly and deeply from the depths of union with God in a genuine and supernatural contact with the Trinity; and from our depth of life, to draw the energies we need to do what we can to transform this world into that Kingdom of justice, peace and love that Jesus Christ came to bring.
And in so doing, and so living, we will indeed be able to rejoice in the knowledge that we are truly so blessed.
Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).