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Remarks at the 2011 Thanksgiving Dinner
By Michael F. McLean
President, Thomas Aquinas College
Thank you, Dr. Oleson, for that reading of Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation. Lincoln’s belief in God and in His providence is certainly evident in his proclamation, and here, as elsewhere, Lincoln masterfully wove Scripture quotations into his remarks. The reference to “Our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” is certainly evocative of our Lord’s words “Our Father who art in Heaven,” which begin the Lord’s Prayer, and suggests that some brief remarks about that prayer might be appropriate at Thanksgiving.
We learn from the late Ralph McInerny, in his foreword to a book called The Three Greatest Prayers, that St. Thomas preached a series of 59 sermons during Lent in 1273, the last year of his life. The number alone is remarkable, to say nothing of the content. Ten of those sermons were devoted to the Lord’s Prayer, the others to the Hail Mary and the Apostles’ Creed.
St. Thomas says that “among all prayers the Lord’s Prayer stands preeminent, for it excels in the five conditions required in prayer: confidence, rectitude, order, devotion, and humility.”
There can be no doubt that the Lord’s Prayer affords the greatest security, St. Thomas says, “since it was framed by our Advocate and most wise Petitioner, in Whom are ‘all the treasures of wisdom.’” The trustworthiness of this prayer is even more apparent, St. Thomas continues, “because He Who (with the Father) hears our prayer, Himself taught us how to pray.”
With respect to the second condition, St. Thomas says prayer should have rectitude, so that we ask God for that which is good for us. For Damascene says that “to pray is to ask fitting things of God.” It is no easy matter to know what we should pray for, St. Thomas says, “since it is difficult to know what we ought to desire.” But Christ is our teacher, and it belongs to Him to teach us what we ought to pray for. “It follows, then, that we pray most rightly when we ask for what He taught us to pray for.”
Regarding the third condition, St. Thomas says that “as desire should be orderly, so should prayer, since it is the expression of desire.” He continues: “now the right order is that our desires and prayers should prefer spiritual goods to carnal goods and heavenly things to earthly things …and Our Lord teaches us to observe this order in the Lord’s Prayer, in which we pray first for heavenly and afterwards for earthly blessings.”
The fourth condition, devotion, arises from charity, which is the love of God and of our neighbor, and St. Thomas says “both of these are indicated in the Lord’s Prayer.” “In order to express our love of God we call him Father, and in order to indicate love of our neighbor we pray for all in general when we ask God to forgive us our trespasses, since it is through love of neighbor that we make this petition.”
Finally, St. Thomas says, prayer should be humble, as is seen in the story of the Pharisee and the publican. “This humility is observed in the Lord’s Prayer,” St. Thomas continues, “since true humility consists in not presuming on our own strength, but in trusting to obtain all things from the power of God.”
Having sketched briefly St. Thomas’ account of the five conditions required in prayer, let me turn now to that part of the Lord’s Prayer which is particularly relevant to the celebration of Thanksgiving. St. Thomas says the gift of fortitude “prevents man’s heart from fainting through fear of lacking necessities, and makes him trust that God will provide him with whatever he needs.” “For this reason,” St. Thomas continues, “the Holy Spirit teaches us to pray to God to give us this day our daily bread.”
“In these same words,” St. Thomas says, “the Holy Spirit teaches us to avoid the sins which tend to arise from the desire for temporal goods.” The first is unbridled greed, “whereby a man seeks things above his station and condition of life, being dissatisfied with those in keeping with it.” Our Lord taught us to shun this vice “by praying for bread only, i.e., the needs of the present life…He did not teach us to ask for uncommon things, luxurious things, or a variety of things, but for bread, without which man cannot live at all.”
The second vice is fraud, which “consists in molesting and defrauding others in the acquisition of temporal goods.” St. Thomas says “we are taught here to shun this vice by asking for our own and not another’s bread.”
“There are some,” St. Thomas says, “who are never satisfied with what they have and always want more.” This is the vice of excessive solicitude or immoderation, “and we are warned to avoid this vice in the words, our daily bread, that is to say, the bread for one day or for one season.”
These same words guard us against the vice of voraciousness, whereby some would devour in one day what would suffice for several days, and when we pray this day our daily bread, we guard against an undue concern for worldly possessions, for Our Lord teaches us to ask only for what we need for the present.
Lastly, and most pertinent to the feast of Thanksgiving, St. Thomas says that in the Lord’s Prayer we pray to be free from the sin of ingratitude, which, he says, “is a great evil, since the ungrateful man prides himself on his wealth and fails to acknowledge that he owes all to God … in order to remove this vice, the Lord says, Give us our daily bread, to remind us that all we have comes from God.”
Anticipating the words of St. Thomas, the Roman philosopher Seneca says that “Among all our many and great vices, none is as common as ingratitude …and the most ungrateful of all is the man who has forgotten a benefit.” Thanksgiving is a good time to recall our many blessings and to express our gratitude for them with a full heart, not only with our words but with our deeds as well, especially now as the semester draws to a close.
Like Lincoln, we should look beyond our nation’s tribulations and thank God for the underlying soundness of its institutions and the graces of its circumstances; for the abundance we enjoy and for the freedoms we tend to take for granted. While we might admit that America is not ordered to wisdom and virtue as its ends, it is nonetheless the only place on earth with the wealth, generosity, and political arrangements necessary for worthy endeavors to thrive. Not the least among these is Thomas Aquinas College itself. It is no accident that the College was founded in America, and that the blessings America provides make possible the pursuit of truth and excellence that takes place here.
Gratitude means praying for the welfare and salvation of our benefactors, founders, faculty, staff, chaplains, spouses, families, fellow students, alumni, and friends of the College, all of whom contribute in some way to the common good of this institution.
For some of us gratitude means resolving to make better use of the gifts we have been given and of the opportunities the College and its benefactors provide. It may mean studying harder and doing more to contribute to the success of your classes. For others of us it may mean resolving to make continued good use of those same gifts and opportunities. I encourage all of you to do your very best from now until the end of the semester and to recall and to rededicate yourselves to what you came here in search of in the first place — not high grades or A’s on examinations, not the triumph of your own opinions or the esteem of tutors and students, but rather something of far greater worth and lasting value: the beginnings of Catholic wisdom and virtue. If we do these things, all of which are spiritual works and involve great spiritual goods, we will, I think, be paying back more than we have received to those who have made our lives at the College possible.
Finally, I hope that my remarks this evening will be a reminder, too, of how thankful we should be for the help and inspiration we receive from the saints of the Catholic Church. In the foreword which I cited earlier, Ralph McInerny writes that “the sermons of St. Thomas are remarkable for their clarity, their depth, their holiness, and their wealth of Scriptural quotations. As a result … they have always held a special place in the hearts of the faithful — experts and laymen — for they address all quite simply and directly as Christian believers.”
Dr. McInerny reminds us that “Thomas Aquinas was not only the most learned man of his time, he was also a saint,” a saint for whose wisdom, example, and patronage we should be eternally grateful.
“When you’re discussing the great works you have to assimilate what’s being said by the author to your own understanding. Rather than passively receiving information, we’re becoming self-learners and independent thinkers, making the great ideas our own.”
– Matthew Duggan (’18)
“Thomas Aquinas College is a small college, but its reputation has spread far and wide. Because it lives off the masterpieces of thought and literature emanating from the Christian tradition of the Western world, it provides a first-rate education for a select body of talented undergraduates.”
– Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J (†)