Father Ralph Beiting was a priest who spent more than sixty years ministering to the people of Appalachia. The founder of the Christian Appalachian Project, he was a force of nature. Under his direction, thousands of students have had transformative experiences working among the rural poor. I had admired him from a distance as I traveled to Virginia and Kentucky as a college student on Alternative Spring Break trips. In a very significant way my vocation had its roots in these missions. It was a great blessing later, as a priest, for me to come to know him personally as I led students as a campus minister to his beloved Kentucky.
I heard him tell a story more than once that taught him an important lesson. Father Beiting had an amazing energy and zeal. He would travel all over the rural roads for miles to minister to a single soul. He gave generously, expecting nothing in return. He was preparing a man to be received into the Church at the Easter Vigil and had been visiting the man at his house weekly. The “house” was a broken down trailer. The roof leaked and the boards on the makeshift porch were in poor repair. The man was not well, but he would always sit out front waiting to greet Fr. Beiting when he came. The man was always whittling and seemed to be quite skilled at it.
When the week before the Vigil arrived, Father Beiting visited the old man, who had now become a friend. The man was very excited that the time had come to enter the Church. When Father entered the house, the man excused himself and went into the other room. When he came out, with great pride he presented Father Beiting with the most beautiful walking stick he had ever seen! The man had painstakingly carved it and lovingly lacquered it. He said, “Father, I want you to have this stick in return for all you have done for me.”
Father Beiting was flabbergasted! He did not want to take it from the man. He said,” I cannot accept this from you. You could go into the city and sell it for money that you need.” The man was crestfallen. He was hurt and angry. He said to Father Beiting: “You have given me something of eternal value. I have nothing to give you but this little stick. If you cannot accept this stick from me, we cannot be friends.” Father Beiting apologized from his heart and humbly accepted the stick. Until the day he died he kept that walking stick in his office right behind his desk.
Gifts are not an end in themselves. Gifts reflect a relationship. When we share presents with one another, what we are really sharing is love.
Sometimes we think if we give a large gift it will mean more. But when I look at the gifts that I treasure the most they would be of little value in the eyes of the world: a broken down pair of rosary beads handed to me by a friend who was dying, a picture painted by my grandmother, a prayer book signed to me by my parents on the occasion of my ordination. It is not the financial value of the gifts that makes them priceless to me. It is the relationship and the love expressed through the giving and receiving.
Jesus is the greatest gift of all. He gives us everything; and in return, what can we offer Him?
Of course, we cannot give Jesus a gift equal to what we have received, but He is deeply moved and grateful for even the smallest gesture we make towards Him or to others out of love for Him. Christmas is a day, of course, but it is really better understood as a spirit. It is the spirit of love that lives within us always.
Whether we give to Jesus the gift of our time in a Holy Hour in our Chapel, the gift of our service in St. Vincent de Paul, the gift of our love volunteering in the Pregnancy Care Center, the gift of our ministry at the altar, whatever we do out of love for Him pleases Jesus and gives Him honor. He treasures the “sticks” we offer out of love for Him. As hard as it can be for us to accept sometimes, Jesus loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. The God of the universe wants to be our friend.
As we celebrate Christmas this year and we thank God for all that He gives us, let us thank Him for accepting the “sticks” of our hearts, our hands, our lives. The greatest gift that He gives us is in accepting our gifts humbly and lovingly offered. Jesus generously and graciously allows us to enter into eternal friendship with Him. There could be never be any greater love nor any greater gift than the love Jesus has for us. Come, let us adore Him.
Rev. Richard F. Clancy
Thanksgiving Day, 2019
A few months ago I came across a quotation asking a question that stopped me in my tracks: “What if you woke up today with only the things you thanked God for yesterday?” It was and is a sobering reminder of the need to pause in the midst of daily life to simply and sincerely express thanks to God. As I examine my own conscience, I unfailingly find that I must confess that I lack proper gratitude for all the blessings that God has given to me in my life.
Ingratitude is a much easier posture to sustain than gratitude. There is always something that is wrong or could be better. It seems at times that negativity, cynicism, and criticism surround us like a dark cloud. It is a kind of lowest common denominator. Our culture is marinated in a sour mixture of ingratitude and hypercriticism. It is hard for us to not be infected by this toxic cocktail, but we need to resist it because it has a corrosive influence on our lives and on the people around us.
We need to name ingratitude and excessive negativity for what they are: sin. Our personal relationship with Christ lifts us above an ungrateful spirit. We begin to view things through a new lens and even if our circumstances apparently remain the same, our attitude changes. God loves us and gives us the gift of life. Every day is filled with countless blessings and opportunities to grow in love of Him and in joyful service to our neighbor. When we lift our gaze upward, our hearts are filled with gratitude and worship.
It is one’s attitude that makes the difference. I have found ingratitude among people who seem to have everything, and have been inspired to find gratitude in the most unlikely of places. I have witnessed grace before meals extend for several minutes as homeless people burst into spontaneous, heartfelt praise and worship for the food they are about to receive. I have heard people in rehabilitation centers give glory to God for small, barely perceptible “progress.” Most moving of all is to sit in a hospice with a person of faith at the end of life who is bursting with joy and gratitude as they reflect on their life’s blessings.
Gratitude is one of the characteristics of a mature, spiritual person. We do well to pray for the gift of gratitude. As with all good gifts, God is most eager to answer this prayer as it enables us to serve Him with joy and empowers us to be effective witnesses to His love and mercy. The Common Mass Preface for Weekdays (IV) reads in part:
For, although you have no need of our praise,
yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift,
since our praises add nothing to your greatness
but profit us for salvation
through Christ our Lord.
As we near Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful for my life, my vocation, my family, my friends, and all the blessings I have received in my life. I am thankful for all of you and the opportunity to serve you as a priest. I give thanks every day with you and for you as I celebrate the Eucharist, a Greek word that means “Thanksgiving.” I pray that you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day with your loved ones, and that we all carry that grateful spirit with us every day throughout the year.
Rev. Richard F. Clancy