(Editor's note: Father Lesser was ordained to the priesthood for the Albany Diocese June 20. Photos of the ordination are in The Evangelist's June 25 print edition. Just before that, he wrote this last reflection as a seminarian. This summer, The Evangelist will welcome seminarian Francis Vivacqua to its list of "Seminarian's Diary" writers; read previous columns in the series at www.evangelist.org.)
In the last few weeks before ordination, study gives way a little to time spent in reflection - as it should. So, a little while ago, I spent a week at Mount Saviour, a Benedictine monastery in the Southern Tier of New York.
I sat in the quiet with Rev. Mark O'Keefe's book, "Priestly Virtues." Father O'Keefe suggests that, of all the virtues, the simple virtue of gratitude is the fundamental one of priesthood. I think it is also the most fundamental virtue of life.
I am a pretty polite guy who is quick to say "thank you" for kindnesses that come my way. Our moms and dads have trained us all well. Personally, at some level, I probably even have some warm sense of appreciation for nice things.
But if I am honest with myself, I might not be startled by the good things that come my way. After all, I plan and work hard. I am bright enough. I do and say nice things. When blessings come my way, one after another, it becomes seductively easy to simply expect and accept them.
When that happens, my sense of gratitude is overshadowed by my sense of having earned them.
When I lose sight of God, it becomes easy to forget that my intellect, my ability to work hard and my loving and faith-filled home that afforded me a sense of security and fair play were not of my own design. How easily I can forget that things could have been very different for me.
The kind of visceral gratitude O'Keefe is talking about is grounded in the realization that all the good I have come to expect is because of the generosity of God, who placed me in this time and place with a plan in mind. Priests are called to the privilege of participating in a particular way in the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.
As I walked the monastery grounds, I contentedly ticked off in my mind all those good things I had to be grateful for: my mom and dad, who always loved me, even when I did less than lovable things...my siblings, too...the people who educated and mentored me...the opportunity for college and veterinary school...the beautiful and bright woman I fell in love with, who astonishingly also fell in love with me...our three fantastic kids...the beauty of our farm, the contentment of having a good dog and the privilege of caring for magnificent horses...a successful practice that exposed me to the miracle of life and the mystery of medicine.
But O'Keefe does not let me stop there. The virtue of gratitude also holds when there are bills to pay and family gets tired and cranky. His model expresses gratitude for struggling with classwork and poor grades, for the frustrations of teenage growing pains, for broken water pipes, for storms that drop trees on fences and barns, for dogs that run away, for horses that failed to get well despite our best efforts and for clients who at times also had more of a sense of entitlement than gratitude for all my hard work. Gratitude even has a voice in the loss of a loved one.
Real gratitude does not come with the qualifier that applies it only to things which evoke a warm sense of appreciation. Real, priestly gratitude is rooted in the knowledge that God has placed us in the midst of the good and the bad, and that we have been given the remarkable gift of making His love, mercy, compassion and truth present there.
As a mere "idea," gratitude sounds pretty noble. As a lived reality, it can be much more frightful. It pretty quickly becomes clear that I would never be up to the task on my own.
Suddenly, I find myself thanking God from the depths of my being that He will always be at my side.