By the Rev. Erik Esparza
Years ago, there was a 12-year-old boy named David who underwent a bone marrow transplant in order to repair his immune system; you see, he had been born without one. Because common germs and viruses could kill him if exposed, David lived his 12 years encased in a plastic bubble. When asked what he’d like to do if and when released from his protective bubble, he replied, “I want to walk barefoot on grass, and touch my mother’s hand.”
David’s story and those of countless others who live in a reality so different from most, challenge us to look at our own realities in a new light. David reminds us that the simple things most of us take for granted, like walking barefoot on the grass or simply holding the hand of our mother, are blessings to be cherished.
As a Catholic priest, I have been blessed to encounter many people like David. Whenever I visit a patient in a hospital or a resident in a convalescent home, it reminds me how I often take life for granted; and how much time I have wasted worrying or complaining about my “troubles.” We all need encounters with others who challenge our perceptions and reveal new blessings to us.
Last year, I encountered a little 7-year-old named Saydi who, despite living with a debilitating form of cancer, lived each day to the fullest. When I first met Saydi, I marveled at her joy and excitement for life because there were so many things she could not do. But Saydi challenged me to always see the blessings of life no matter what happened. Although cancer later took away her ability to walk, it never took away her joy or her ability to tell jokes.
Even a couple of days before her death last September, she still smiled and shared a few jokes as she always did – despite the suffering she was enduring. While it pained me and so many others to bid farewell to this tiny living saint, I learned the most valuable lesson from her: no matter what, choose joy! Saydi had every reason to complain and give up, but instead she chose joy!
While we undergo the challenges of the coronavirus, we must not forget our brothers and sisters like David, Saydi and their families who suffer tremendously, yet somehow find a way to continue forward with joy. Amid struggles and pain, they do not take life for granted; rather, each day is a blessing simply because each day is not guaranteed. The great English writer and theologian G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
As we give thanks this year, let us make a commitment to embrace a spirit of gratitude for life in all its goodness. Fostering gratitude enables us to cherish life and to experience profound joy. In the Christian New Testament scriptures, the mother of Jesus, Mary, experienced joy despite all that she would endure. After receiving the news that she had conceived Jesus in her womb, she traveled to the home of her cousin Elizabeth and spoke these words, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:46-47).
Mary’s life included many challenges and sorrows as she journeyed with Jesus from his birth in a manger to his death on the cross. Yet she continually drew her strength — not from the sufferings — but from the joy she experienced in God’s presence. You see, she trusted in this scripture from Deuteronomy 31:6, “Be strong and steadfast, have no fear or dread of them, for it is the Lord, your God, who marches with you; he will never fail you or forsake you.”
As we journey forward into the year 2021 and all that comes with it, let us remember that God marches with us. Like Jesus’ mother, G.K. Chesterton, David, and Saydi, let us choose to live with gratitude and joy.
Father Erik Esparza is pastor of The Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Community in Redlands and the director of the Office of Priest Personnel for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino.