At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us. — Albert Schweitzer
If you’ve ever been to Mexico, and visited a church or shrine there, you will have seen dozens, maybe even hundreds of Milagros — miniature votive charms shaped like body parts, representing a “thank you” for healing delivered or promised. And if you traveled back in history to the time of the Etruscans, you would see in their temples similar votive offerings: a terracotta head, a foot, an ear; each a symbol of gratitude — much like the milagros.
Gratitude, it seems, is a universal phenomenon, “hardwired” into human nature. Usually a spontaneous emotional response toward one who has shown us a kindness, it can become a spiritual discipline worth cultivating. Recalling all the things I am grateful for — at least once a day — has been psychologically and spiritually healing. I have truly learned what they taught us in seminary: “Gratitude turns what you have into enough.”
The well-known Psalm 107 begins with “Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good, for God’s mercy endures forever.” In the world’s religions, you will even find that gratitude is “required.” In Christianity, the Eucharist (Greek for “thanksgiving”) is the central liturgical act; the spiritual ideal is to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.” A Jewish morning prayer states, “I thank you, living and enduring God, for you have restored my life to me: great is your faithfulness.” Just waking up in the morning is reason enough to give thanks, considering the alternative. For Muslims, the Quran is an ever-present reminder that life is a gift (a verse in the 55th Surah asks, “Which of your Lord’s blessings will you deny?”). Ramadan is a full month of gratitude embodied in fasting and prayer and culminating in feasting and charity. For Buddhists, gratitude is the main currency of the “economy of gift.”
Many Buddhists give prayerful thanks for all that life has to offer, including the challenges and suffering, because it helps them to appreciate the gifts, and to become more compassionate. Hindus show gratitude in many small acts of hospitality, and through service toward the divine presence, both in their homes and temple shrines.
The acts of gratitude — a burnt offering, a thank-you note, a bow — teach one to give thanks in all circumstances, that is to say in all moods — including moods that are distinctly unthankful. From this practice, thankfulness — a proven recipe for lasting happiness — is sure to follow.
May I suggest a new Thanksgiving tradition to you, dear reader? Before you sit down to eat, find on YouTube the beautiful documentary “Gratitude” by Louie Schwartzberg, a 10-minute TEDx talk. A meditation by Brother David Steindl-Rast starts at 4:25 minutes. I can assure you, you will not regret watching and listening — no matter what or in whom you believe.
The Rev. Dr. Gabriele Parks is a specialist in transitional ministry currently serving the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and a participant in Interfaith Initiative Centre County, InterfaithInitiativeCC@ hotmail.com.