Thanksgiving in July

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”  This is probably Meister Eckhart’s best-known quotation. While the mystic’s work was the main focus of my senior thesis, I never came across the phrase in my research. And though it doesn’t conflict with what I’ve read of his,  I’ve never necessarily considered it something that characterizes or summarizes his thought.

Until today.  We were talking in class about a certain theologian’s take on the current economic crisis and other pressing world issues.  As opposed to getting into technicalities, however, my professor picked out a common – if somewhat subtle – thread running through the author’s treatment of these topics: the need for gratitude.  He said, roughly: “If something goes wrong, we blame it on someone else. And if everything goes well, it’s all to our credit. Being thankful for our successes means admitting that we didn’t do it alone. It’s considered embarrassing, because it signifies a lack of autonomy, of independence… when realistically, we can do nothing alone. Gratitude is what breaks the web of the ego.”  Trumped up egos can only lead to denial and selfishness, and to the greed that has caused so much tragedy.

My undergrad thesis was on spiritual poverty – on the value of nothingness, the need to strip down to the basics in order to understand ourselves better.  In discussing this, Eckhart  based his thought mainly on the beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit”.  We have to empty ourselves in order to make room and be filled with what really matters, he says. But I didn’t see such a strong connection between that and thankfulness until today. It’s about understanding that we’re part of a bigger picture;  we can’t claim credit for bringing ourselves into existence, for one, and we have to rely on each other to get along from there on out.  So much is gift, but we’re so good at taking it all for granted.  Eckhart’s #1 prayer  fits right in then, because it means recognizing just how little we are, in the grand scheme of things.

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1 Comment

  1. charlespaolino said,

    July 9, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    One troubling thing about much of the reaction and response to the economic downturn is the absence of any sense of “spiritual poverty.” This is a problem on a moral level, but it is also a problem on a practical level. In fact, the lack of any real consideration of “what really matters” blinds both government and people at large to the radical causes of the recession and the collapse of financial institutions. On the same day you entered this post, I heard an interview on NPR with a woman who had been laid off from her job and had been out of work for more than a year despite her vigorous and varied efforts to find employment. Her summary of her dilemma was that if she weren’t employed soon, her family would have to eat out less and she would have to continue driving a car that has 180,000 miles on it. Her viewpoint, it seemed to me, was a microcosmic expression of the premise on which our whole system has been operating since the economic downturn began – namely, that the goal is to restore life to its former condition. The fact that its former condition was based on bloated — yes, one might say greedy — expectations in both the public and private spheres and could be sustained only by enormous debt doesn’t seem to enter in to the vision of a healed economy.

    I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s when young adults who had been born before the Depression and had weathered World War II were establishing their families. I vividly remember when developers started to construct neighborhoods with four- and five-room Cape Cod houses on 30-foot lots. In most cases these homes were built without garages, because most families had either one car or none at all. I remember the excitement and satisfaction of families we knew intimately, families that in those days constituted the middle class, when they were able to move from a rented flat into such a neighborhood. By the 1970s, the expectations of the same class of people had evolved into a 10-room Colonial on an acre or two, with two and a half bathrooms and a two-car garage and enough parking space for more vehicles since every family member of driving age had to have his or her own conveyance. The facilities considered necessary inside those houses also expanded geometrically. There may be nothing wrong with this change in itself, except that the middle class could afford it only by incurring debt that would have been unthinkable to previous generations. This nurtured the establishment of a credit industry that thrived on — depended on — a consumer base with an ever-increasing appetite for “things.” Indeed, people’s expectations didn’t level off but continued to grow as the genius of auto makers and digital scientists and marketing departments and retailers enticed us to add more and more to our idea of the “necessities” of life. It became commonplace for folks to take on debt that they consciously conceded they would not live long enough to repay, and – what’s more – they didn’t care, as long as they could meet the monthly minimum. Eventually, the middle class as it once existed all but disappeared, replaced by a pseudo “upper middle class.” And, of course, the gap between this comfortable segment of society and those who were left behind grew ever wider.

    When the economic system imploded, there was a brief flurry of public discourse about this phenomenon, but it never gained any traction. Inconvenient truths seldom do.

    As always, I really appreciated your thoughts and look forward to reading more.


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