As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, Americans are reminded of the Pilgrims, European settlers who held a feast in the early 1600s to give thanks to God, and the Native American locals, for helping them survive their first year in their new home. But giving thanks is not something reserved for the Thanksgiving holiday. Today, gratitude continues to play a prominent role in America's spiritual life.
Every language has a phrase for "thank you." It's a sentiment children everywhere are encouraged by their parents to express easily and often. Every religion has a special way to say "thank you" to God. In the Jewish faith, these "thank yous" often take the form of formal blessings, or "brachot."
In addition to "thank you blessings" for food and health, there are also brachot to be recited upon seeing a rainbow, a wise person, a beautiful woman, a long-lost friend or a king. There is even a long blessing one says after using the toilet, which gives thanks for the smooth functioning of the human body.
Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York and the author of A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice.
"Being grateful makes us aware or reminds us of the blessings of our lives. It reflects a sense of how important it is to go through life really appreciating the blessings, the miracles of every day. And I don't think it's about making the sun stand still as it were or dividing the Red Sea, but really just the everyday aspects of life, the gifts of life and nature and beauty and relationships. All those things we enjoy every day, but often we forget about," Rabbi Strassfeld said.
Rabbi Strassfeld says that traditional Jews also thank God at painful moments. When one hears of a death, for example, one blesses God as "the true Judge."
"And it's a way of expressing an acknowledgment that death is also part of life. It doesn't mean that death is a blessing or that that person is better off, but it just really understands that everything in life is part of life, and that everything from a traditional viewpoint is created by God. So all of life is part of that. Blessing and gratitude allow you to emphasize or to focus more on the good things and to put the difficult things in the broader perspective," he explained.
The Christian Bible teaches that gratitude and thanksgiving for a gift or a kind act are spiritually good for us quite apart from any benefit we may have derived from the original gift itself. Reverend James A. Kowalski, Dean of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York, recalls a story from the Book of Luke. It describes how Jesus once healed 10 lepers on their way to Jerusalem, but only one returned to thank him.
"He says an interesting thing to the one person who came back. He said, 'Your faith has made you well.' Now the scriptures say that all 10 were healed physically. And I suspect what he was saying to the one person who came back and said 'thank you' [was], 'You have been even more deeply healed. You have come to understand a spiritual truth that is going to make you even more whole,'" Rev. Kowalski said.
The Episcopal leader says this story conveys a deep message about the importance of gratitude in building and maintaining a sense of community. "When I say 'thank you' to you, it's not just a common courtesy and maybe even if it is, I'm actually saying 'you did something for me that I am better for because of;' 'I maybe couldn't have gotten by without it;' 'I need you;' 'I depend on you.' And that can be a kind of vulnerability that we find uncomfortable. To be grateful is to acknowledge inter-dependence, that we can't make it alone," he said.
Dean Kowalski has come to believe that God also expresses appreciation and gratitude.
"God is grateful. God delights in you and me. God creates and says 'it is good.' 'You are my beloved. Nothing can separate you from me.' The voice of God that Jesus heard at his own baptism 'You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.' I've come to believe the world could change if everybody could hear that voice of God's gratitude. If we understood that God is saying to each one of us, 'you are my beloved, you are cherished, there is never going to be another you. And I don't make junk. Spend the gift well and thank you!'" he said.
In the Sufi, or mystical, tradition of Islam, Allah is the source of thanksgiving and praise. In fact, one of the divine names of God is 'Grateful One.' According to Sheikah Fariha, a leading Sufi teacher in New York, the more grateful one becomes, the more one is aware that gratitude pervades the universe itself.
"The holy Koran, as seen through the eyes of the mystic, saints and friends of Allah, states that 'the entire creation is praise.' Every human being, every creature, the sun, the moon, the stars, everything is praising its source and that this is its [creation's] divine function. That for this it has come forth - to be a 'perfect mirror of praise.' And it is perfect because it is the divine creation," Sheikah Fariha says.
She adds, "Gratitude therefore is the coming to consciousness in the human mind and the human heart of this universal praise, and joining into this universal praise you might say. And letting go and melting all those blocks and armor that keep us from that state. The melting away of that. And then we become what we always were, which is simply this glorious praise of our Source. So it's really the foundation of spiritual life is gratitude. And therefore, it's really the beginning of our path, and it's the middle of our path and it's the end of our path."
There are countless other ways in which those on a spiritual path express gratitude. Tibetan Buddhists, who believe in reincarnation, teach that everyone has at one time or another, been a mother to everyone else, and therefore gratitude to all beings, expressed as compassion, is always appropriate.
Every year at this time, the Native American Hopi people hold a harvest feast to thank Mother Earth for her continued care and the completion of another cycle in the Sacred Wheel.
In my family, we have our own traditional reason to offer thanks at this time: it makes the turkey taste even better.