Gratefulness and the Spirit of Thanksgiving (FREE!)
November 25, 2009 20:00
Gratefulness and the Spirit of Thanksgiving
Br. David Steindl-Rast and Rollie Stanich
written by Corey W. deVos
It's that time of year again—the leaves have changed, the birds have made their mass exodus toward the equator, and we've begun arming ourselves to the teeth with rock salt and ice scrapers. As the curtain of another year begins to draw to a close, we prepare our hearts and minds for the emotional circus of the holiday season—often on a purely unconscious level, like a mammal instinctively preparing for hibernation—and we wait for the warmth and anxiety of the holidays to come over us like an old familiar blanket.
Thanksgiving is a fascinating holiday, cutting across many different generations and many different worldviews. There is a strong tribal element to Thanksgiving, directly descending from ancient harvest festivals where we sacrifice an animal to Mother Nature in appreciation for the year's crops, and as a way to bribe her for another bountiful year (today we know that sacrifice as dinner.) The religious undertones in Thanksgiving are fairly obvious, traditionally understood as a religious celebration to offer thanks and praise to God. And yet despite these religious origins, Thanksgiving is primarily recognized today as a secular holiday, when modern men and women of all faiths (or no faith) can find their way home and spend quality time together arguing about trivial things. Even the postmodernists can find something to love in Thanksgiving, when they aren't too busy deconstructing the myth of Columbus, harping about the absence of tofurkey at this year's feast, or making us feel guilty about the decimation of Native American culture.
How extraordinary that the unifying force of gratitude can bring all of us to the same dinner table! Extraordinary, but not surprising. After all, gratitude does not fall under the purview of any particular religion, philosophy, or culture, but rather infuses and informs all of these. Gratitude is core to the human condition itself. It is the substrate of all our most meaningful relationships—with our family and friends, with ourselves, and with God.
As you look at the image above, reflect on the ancient symbolism of the cornucopia, which wonderfully captures the essence of gratitude. We feel grateful for the feast spilling out from the harvest cone, and offer our thanks to the source of all sustenance and nourishment. Our gratitude is the immediate and effortless response to the radical abundance offered to us at every moment, an abundance that surrounds us even during our darkest times, whether we can see it or not. But not only do we express our gratefulness for abundance—as we offer our devout appreciation, we can also feel "great-fullness" as abundance. That is, in the act of offering gratitude we actually become the source of all abundance, feeling the infinite love pouring through our hearts like sweet syrup, an inexhaustible warmth that floods the galaxies swirling behind our eyelids.
Although Thanksgiving is a primarily American and Canadian holiday, the act of expressing gratitude belongs to no culture alone. Acknowledging that a significant portion of the Integral Life audience lives outside North America, we nonetheless wanted to share the spirit of this holiday with you all, so that together we can all sit at the same table, break bread, and offer our most sincere thanks for the many blessings of our lives.
Take a Moment: Light a Candle! From time immemorial, people have lit candles in sacred places as expressions of devotion and gratitude. Why should cyberspace be any less sacred? Help make the internet a little more holy by visiting www.gratefulness.org. Sit in silence for a minute or two, feeling your breath while gently reflecting on the many blessings of life. Form a prayer in the center of your heart, surrounding yourself and everyone you love with the warmth of your gratitude. Then use the website to light your own virtual candle in the dark, releasing your prayer to the rest of the world. Take a deep breath, exhale, and enjoy your day!
Gratitude and God in 2nd-Person
Just as human beings intrinsically possess 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-person perspectives of the world, so do we possess those same perspectives in our experience of spirituality. We contemplate, think, and know about Spirit in the 3rd-person; we pray to and commune with Spirit in a 2nd-person relationship; and we meditate, feel, and know ourselves as Spirit in a 1st-person apprehension of our source and substance. While these dimensions of the divine can be found in just about any spiritual lineage—Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Islam, etc.—many of these traditions explicitly emphasize only one or two of these perspectives, resulting in one or more important aspects of spirituality often being left out of their conceptions of God.
For some who are not rooted in Western spiritual traditions, the notion of “God in 2nd-person” can initially seem confusing or even off-putting. After all, with whom exactly are we communing? The anthropomorphic and often angry “personal God” we know from the Old Testament? The pantheon of deities and demons we find in the East? Mother Nature? The Great Web of Life? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? There seem to have been so few exemplars in the modern and postmodern worlds to help us understand the “we” that exists between our individual selves and the divine—especially since this crucial “Second Face” of God is so frequently labeled as obsolete, a quaint relic of mythic consciousness.
It is interesting that, while modernity and postmodernity are quick to dismiss the importance of the 2nd-person nature of God, the Golden Rule (”treat others as you would like to be treated”) is widely acknowledged as the common core of all the world’s religions, and is so easily adaptable to these post-mythic levels of development. And what else is the Golden Rule, if not a distillation of the very essence of God in 2nd-person? While it can be difficult to find this sort of devotional spirituality role modeled beyond the mythic stage of development, it nonetheless shows up in everyone’s life—in every act of kindness, compassion, and empathy, in every quiet feeling of gratitude, in every heartfelt “thank you,” and in every intimate connection we have ever felt with each other and with the world. Whether explicitly acknowledged or not, we are in relationship with God every single moment of our lives. And every moment is another opportunity to express the deepest gratitude for this relationship, allowing the love we feel between ourselves and God to fill our hearts—until we feel ourselves overflowing with warmth and limitless light, spilling it into the rest of the world.
Cultivating this experience of gratefulness—or “great fullness”—is the impulse behind all devotional practice, no matter what tradition it is situated in. As such, gratitude itself represents a unique space in which we can anchor our discussions of the unity underlying all the world’s religions. While our third-person descriptions of the divine often vary greatly from tradition to tradition, and our first-person experiences of Spirit are usually elusive and difficult to wrap meaningful language around, the feelings of gratitude and thankfulness are universal—so universal, in fact, that they form the living bedrock of all the world’s great spiritual traditions, from the beginning of the world until the end of time.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s an ancient deity with a long white beard, a thousand-armed bodhisattva, your guru, priest, or sensei, your friends and family, a stranger on the street, your cat or dog, or the unknowable Mystery behind it all—the point resides within none of these objects of devotion, as they all equally reflect the fractalized perfection of the One. As Martin Buber reminds us once again—in the ‘I-Thou’ relationship, God is not some sort of ultimate ‘Thou’ at the end of the universe, but the hyphen that connects you with everyone and everything in creation. God is the essence of relationship itself, the temple of “we” in which every gesture is a prayer, every kindness a blessing, and every conflict an opportunity to bring even more love into the world.