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If Lukewarm, Reheat

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Maybe, before the food turned lukewarm, the pressure to eat had dictated that the compulsory Thanksgiving Day prayer be abridged to pragmatic generalities. But I doubt it. More likely it was that things were already lukewarm in my spiritual life.

"God, thank you for gathering us all here together," I said to a gathering of about a dozen family and friends at my home. "Um, and thank you for this meal. And — um — God bless the world."

Indeed, depending where and with whom you dine, the Thanksgiving Day prayer can be a wobbly, discomfited, simulated entreaty to the divine. Such was the case back then, in 2000, where nearly half the crowd at my table was of the prayer-free variety and nearly all the others, like me, were lukewarm Catholics — our juries still out, our bets still hedged.

With a slalom course of sensibilities through which to maneuver, I knew the prayer needed to be something simple yet pithy, with just the right balance of joy, irony, and sincerity, if such a balance is possible without the cranberry sauce instantaneously combusting.

Three of the diners had already launched into their meals before my call for prayer. Shamefaced, their eager chewing downshifted into first gear. They looked solemnly at their folded hands as I fumbled for words, adlibbing a divine petition, careful to steer clear of getting too Bible-y. When the prayer ended, there was a brief silence. I stared down at my plate.

"Did I just say 'um — God bless the world'?" I thought to myself. "That is so lame!" I was embarrassed. I distinctly remember imagining that God was probably rolling His eyes and thinking:

Really? Is that the best you can do, Felix? "Bless the world?" It would be a fine prayer, perhaps, if you didn't say it with the same inflection as you would "Margaret, please pass the stuffing" or "Timmy, please cover your mouth when you cough."

Mine was the lazy man's prayer, the prayer of the underachiever, the Gentleman's C of prayers, the prayer of the automated age, geared to maximize metaphysical productivity while minimizing the outlay of time, trust, and trouble for the delivery of godly services. And, anyway, it landed with a thud, like unexploded ordnance.

And I now imagine what might have been going on the mind of others around that table in those beginning, awkward moments of chowing down.

"'God bless the world.' Nicely done," one of the lukewarmers may have been thinking. "It was a suggestion to God. Sort of like, 'No one is telling You what to do, God. It's Your world; we're just renters without a lease.' Cheers!"

"God bless the world," another lukewarmer may have been thinking. "Did Felix just unearth a great existential 'Duh'? Yes, why merely give thanks for our good health, or why simply pray that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria trip over an electrical cord and land in a pool of angry piranhas? God, why don't you go ahead and bless the whole dang thing! Amen!"

An atheist at the far end of the table (I'm not naming names) may have been wondering how her good friends who flew to the Caymans for Thanksgiving were faring: "I betcha they're not praying. Probably no one in the Caymans prays after a tranquil day lounging on the beach like self-contained lava lamps of rum and cranberry."

I'm certain the only true, no-more-questions-asked believer at that table that year was my grandmother, who was 85 and who had long ago thrown up her arms and allowed God to be her rudder. I would look at her and think, "I wish I could believe like she believes. She prays. She trusts. She loves. And as for life's difficult details, she's outsourced most of it to God. Remarkable."

Through St. Faustina — whose revelations of the Merciful Lord had a great deal to do with my reconversion 12 years ago — I now know how Jesus feels about lukewarm souls. It's not good.

"My soul suffered the most dreadful loathing in the Garden of Olives because of lukewarm souls," He tells St. Faustina (Diary of St. Faustina, 1228). In the Book of Revelation, He says of the lukewarm, "I will spit you out of My mouth" (3:16). Ouch.

And how does the Lord define lukewarm souls? He tells St. Faustina, "There are souls who thwart My efforts (Diary, 1682). Souls without love or devotion, souls full of egoism and selfishness, proud and arrogant souls full of deceit and hypocrisy, lukewarm souls who have just enough warmth to keep themselves alive: My Heart cannot bear this" (1702).

But He doesn't give up on them. He requests our prayers for them — specifically on the ninth day of the Divine Mercy Novena. (He dedicates the fourth day of the novena to nonbelievers.)

Since reading the Diary, I pray for lukewarm souls every day, as St. Faustina did — that their hearts be once again set aflame. "Draw them into the very ardor of Your love," she writes, "and bestow upon them the gift of holy love" (1229).

With that in mind, my reheating instructions for lukewarm souls are as follows: Keep the temperature low enough so as to not scald (be humble, joyful, and unguarded about being a practicing Catholic who believes), but hot enough to keep them coming back for more (throw in a Pope Francis quote whenever possible, because everyone loves Pope Francis).

This year, I'm hosting Thanksgiving again. I'm not entirely certain what my dinner prayer will be. I'll undoubtedly include petitions for those around the world who are suffering and frightened and those who are alone. I will certainly give thanks for my family and friends — and, yes, for my faith. I will also pray for the soul of my now-deceased grandmother, who never let us forget that very first Thanksgiving Day so many centuries ago.

"How amazing that the pilgrims on the Mayflower were aiming for the nicer weather and rich soils of Virginia, but the Lord shoved them off course into the cold, rock-strewn wilderness of Plymouth," I recall her saying. "And what did they do in Plymouth? They froze their butts off, made friends with strangers, built shelter, shot pheasants, and gave thanks to our Creator. They gave thanks. Imagine that."

Yes, imagine that. When we give thanks to God — He who hears our prayers and knows our hearts — only then can the real banquet begin, the spiritual banquet laid out for us all. Take a seat. Plenty of room.

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