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.