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James T. KeaneAugust 18, 2023
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A Reflection for Friday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Find today’s readings here.

I gave you a land that you had not tilled and cities that you had not built, to dwell in; you have eaten of vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant.” (Jos 24:13)

As the unofficial historian of America, I spend a fair amount of time poking through our archives, digital and otherwise, looking for interesting info and maybe a story idea or two. A consequence of this sort of avocation at a magazine that is 114 years old is that you come across some truly admirable—and sometimes intimidating—writers and editors and pundits, many of whom worked at America for literally decades or who came to America from prestigious jobs or other promising careers.

Just this past week, I discovered a film critic, Moira Walsh, who started writing a weekly column for America in 1947 and didn’t stop until 1974. She reviewed more than 1,500 movies for us, all in crisp, clever, erudite prose. Father Charles Whelan, S.J., who was trained as a lawyer and once argued a case before the Supreme Court, wrote for America (and advised many editors in chief) for almost half a century. If you have a jones for theology, they’re all there in our pages: Karl Rahner, Hans Kung, Beth Johnson, M. Shawn Copeland, Richard McCormick. Ditto for fiction writers: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Mary Gordon, Ron Hansen and more.

Being part of this tradition can contribute to one’s “imposter syndrome,” the insidious voice so many of us hear professionally or personally that whispers “you’ll never measure up.” But more crucially, I think, it can also provide a framework of pride and tradition that can make one’s daily tasks more meaningful, that sense that you are part of something important. Even if I am standing on the shoulders of giants, it still makes me pretty tall.

Even if I am standing on the shoulders of giants, it still makes me pretty tall.

The last lines of today’s first reading from the Book of Joshua made me think of those benefits of tradition and community, because God seems to be doing something similar in His exhortation to the Israelites—cataloging for them all the mighty works that brought them to where they are, a land they had not tilled and cities they had not built, with vineyards and olive groves which they did not plant. How did they get there? Through God’s actions and the deeds of their ancestors (and, it seems, some judicious bee attacks), not by their own merits. It was God who gave them Moses and Aaron; God who smote the Egyptians, the Amorites, the inhabitants of Jericho; God who drove out their enemies so that they might dwell in the Promised Land.

But is the lesson here “don’t take credit for what you didn’t earn”? Learning that valuable lesson is part of wisdom, sure, but I feel like the Israelites are being exhorted to take heed of a different reality. They are being told that they are part of something larger than themselves, that their prosperity exists in the context of a community and a tradition that was not just the result of luck, not just an accident. That lesson is different: “Remember where you came from, and remember who brought you here.”

The same is true of each of our faith journeys—not one of us got to where we are today in our relationship with God without having been brought along, without some kind of community that nurtured us. Having tension with such communities and participating more or less with our traditions is part of human life, to be sure; but at the same time, their existence is something to be thankful to God for. We live in a land we did not till; we eat of vineyards and olive groves we did not plant.

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