Letters to Peregrinus #22 - On the Most Powerful Man in the World

Dear Peregrinus (3.30 PM):

When I read your letter, I remembered a line (which it took me some time to locate) from that redoubtable Englishman:

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) – “The person who is really in revolt is the optimist, who generally lives and dies in a desperate and suicidal effort to persuade other people how good they are.”[1]

Does it not seem that we Americans have fallen into the bad habit of gaining proficiency at the art of persuading others how bad that or this person is? And the less reasonable we are in such efforts, the louder we speak ... as if greater noise could replace genuine insight. What help is this to anyone? Peregrinus, we need a countering habit to break us of this, lest we get broken.

I am consoled, therefore, that our nation, and so soon after a spiritually wasting Election cycle, will dedicate a full weekend to the works and feelings of gratitude for our country and for each other. We need this countering habit, now ... lest something fundamental in us gets lost in the darkness of our Discontents.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “gratitude”: The quality or condition of being grateful; a warm sense of appreciation of kindness received, involving a feeling of goodwill towards the benefactor and a desire to do something in return; gratefulness.”

I got to thinking how the giving of thanks is biblically what human beings are designed by God to do. Isnʼt that beautiful? What we are designed to give to God and to each other is praise and gratitude – “persuading other people how good they are”. I think again of that wry wit G.K. Chesterton who once wrote: “When we were children, we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling those stockings with legs?”

Our role is to praise, consciously and deliberately, and discerningly to know Who and what is worthy of it. This is hard work, but it is the best kind of hard.

Praise and blessing and the giving of thanks is the food that “fills and satisfies the soul”[2] – “my meal at every wink” – not the ill-seasoned comestibles prepared in the fists of the discontented and placed on the table of self-righteous indignation. To be a soul means to know what strengthens it, nourishes it, and lets it breathe again:

This needful, never spent
And nursing element:
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by lifeʼs law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise...[3]

I have heard often recently, reading everywhere, that our President, is “the most powerful person in the world.” Why ever would we speak in such a way? Really?

Far more would I rather join the chorus of those who exclaim of that leader, or any leader, that he or she is source of gratitude, is a magnifier of what in us as a nation is true and beautiful and good, is an exemplar of the real strength and savvy that virtue effects, is reverent before God and others because aware of the fragility of all of us, and who is able to hear from Jesus Himself, and then insightfully to embrace what Pilate could not – “You have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” (John 19:11)

Oh, I almost forgot to remind you that for us Catholics, this coming Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent, is always the celebration of the solemnity feast of Christ the King – the most powerful man in the world. So, donʼt forget to go to Mass this weekend!

I will head this year to Seattle for Thanksgiving, and in particular because I want to be with my sister whose man is very ill and in hospital. And you, old friend: where will you be? Letʼs be in touch in Advent, which arrives on the Sunday that concludes our Thanksgiving Weekend.

Your friend in Christ the Pilgrim,

Rick, SJ


[1] G.K. Chesterton from his “Introduction” to The Defendant (1901).

[2] St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises [2], the last line of Annotation #2: “For it is not much knowledge that fills and satisfies the soul, but the intimate understanding and relish of the truth.”

[3] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air We Breathe”, line 9-15.

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