One of the more subtle and enjoyable types of comedy involves what can be called conceptual humor. At his peak George Carlin was the master, and I still recall being about 10 years old and listening to his album Take-Offs and Put-Ons. I would play the bit entitled “The Newscast” over and over waiting for Carlin’s sportscaster character, Bif Burns, to say, “Oh, and here’s a partial score: Pittsburgh 37.”
A few years later his humor had continued along the same lines, and his stand-up routine included a segment on oxymorons. Favorites included: jumbo shrimp, act naturally, peace force, clearly misunderstood, business ethics, airline food, military intelligence, government organization, and semi-boneless ham (“Does it have only half a bone?”).
Sadly, George isn’t with us to celebrate what many see as the “mother of all oxymorons”: Thanksgiving 2020.
With all that has happened this calendar year, and with the many precautions in place for those trying their best to put together some sort of celebration this Thursday it is no wonder that it is difficult to get into the Thanksgiving mood. Yet, it may be possible that, from the standpoint of our faith, this is the perfect year for truly giving thanks.
One of the greatest of American Jesuits to ever walk into a college classroom, and one who (to my mind, at least) had a fairly close facial resemblance to George Carlin, was the late Fr. John Kavanaugh, S.J., who spent his career as a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University. Fr. Kavanaugh wrote several excellent books on the Catholic approach to both personal and social ethical issues, the finest of which may be Following Christ in a Consumer Society. He also had a regular column in America, the Jesuit-run weekly magazine. At Thanksgiving in 2010 Fr. Kavanaugh’s profound offering to his readers was entitled “Relish the Banquet.” The article is still online for those who wish to read the full text.
He began by noting his fear that Thanksgiving was in danger of being swallowed up by the “30 shopping days left until Christmas,” and proceeds to give an excellent strategy for not only preserving Thanksgiving, but of savoring it throughout Advent. His approach was a simple one and involved writing down and giving thanks each day for someone and something. By the time Christmas came around there would be, what he so poetically called, “a litany of gifts, a catalogue of the ways God has come into your life.”
In the “First Principle and Foundation” of his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola calls the exercitant to indifference in relation to those things that he finds ultimately unimportant in life: sickness or health, poverty or riches, a short or long life. For someone less attuned to the spiritual life than Ignatius, these seem to be those things that are the exact opposite of unimportant. In fact, they are the things that most people literally strive for throughout their lives.
For Ignatius, the only thing that matters is the relationship that one has with Christ, and anything that hinders that relationship needs to be gotten rid of and left behind. The opening lines of the “First Principle and Foundation” actually state: “God created human beings to praise, reverence, and serve God, and by doing this, to save their souls. God created all other things on the face of the earth to help fulfill this purpose…For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things as much as we are able.”
It is only within this context that the Ignatian call to “find God in all things” has any real meaning. As Jesus might say, even the pagans can find God in a beautiful sunset or in a baby’s smile, but the followers of the Lord find God in what is difficult, painful, and sad. Jesus calls us to find Him in these troubled and troubling times even more so than in times where dozens of loved ones from places far and wide gather around several tables to share in a banquet of giving thanks. In the relative quiet of this year’s celebrations we are given the space to ponder, to remember, and to give thanks for all of those people and things who God has given to us, even – and maybe, especially – amidst all of our difficulties, our pain, and our sadness.
Because there is no way to know where the future will take us, we seem to be at the mercy of so-called experts who have all of the accuracy of George Carlin’s “Hippy Dippy Weatherman” character, Al Sleet: “I imagine some of you were surprised about the weather over the weekend, especially if you watched my show Friday night.” So let us put our faith where it belongs this Thanksgiving and follow the advice of Fr. Kavanaugh to “relish the banquet,” and by doing so to give thanks to the One Who provides the banquet and bestows upon us every good gift.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and to all of your loved ones!