It’s that time of the year. Everyone in America seems to be talking about gratitude as we prepare for Thanksgiving and what used to be the start of the holiday season. Although the gratefulness meter clearly tops out near the end of November, I’ve noticed an increasing amount of peer pressure to be thankful year-round. There are on-line instructions for keeping a gratitude journal. University researchers assure us that feelings of gratitude can boost our self-esteem, quality of sleep, and overall sense of well-being. My Facebook news feed is filled with people listing three things they are grateful for each day and then challenging others to do the same. And Oprah claims that gratitude elevates your life to a higher frequency. In fact, the November issue of O: The Oprah Magazine (which came out in mid-October, by the way) is dedicated to the Power of Gratitude.
Encouraging Americans to be thankful for more than one day a year is a concept I support, but I’m not sure it’s as novel as it seems. After all, gratitude shows up in the majority of sacred religious texts. As you might expect, in the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the focus is on giving thanks to God. In many parts of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, expressing gratitude was actually more like praising God through ritual sacrifice. Leviticus is a great source for instructions on the proper methods for such things. Here’s one passage about ritual sacrifices for well-being. You’ll notice that it does not allow for those day-after-Thanksgiving leftovers we’ve all come to cherish.
If you offer it for thanksgiving, you shall offer with the thank offering unleavened cakes mixed with oil, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of choice flour well soaked in oil….And the flesh of your thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being shall be eaten on the day it is offered; you shall not leave any of it until morning. (Leviticus 7:12,15)
Sacrifices are great, I suppose, but the classic templates for Biblical gratitude are found in the book of Psalms (which may or may not have been penned by King David). There, we find songs of Thanksgiving for Victory, Earth’s Bounty, God’s Wondrous Deeds, Recovery from Grave Illness, Deliverance of Many Troubles, and God’s Goodness. Psalm 100 is a great example of an all-encompassing thanks-be-to-God hymn:
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
The Qur’an also offers regular reminders about being grateful for all that God provides. In fact, the Arabic phrase Al-ḥamdulillāh is the second verse of the Qur’an. The short translation is “all praise and thanks to God,” but it’s really an attempt at acknowledging that anything you might be grateful for exists only because of God’s unending grace and mercy. Because this concept is integral to all three Abrahamic religions, the phrase is also used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews.
Here are a few more specific examples from the Qur’an. A couple of them are reminiscent of what we find in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament – being thankful to God the Creator and Provider. Others seem more closely linked with the notion of God as our Guide to the straight path.
It is out of His Mercy that He has made for you Night and Day, that you may rest therein, and that you may seek of his Grace, and in order that you may be grateful. (sura 28 (the Narrations), verse 73)
O you who believe! Eat of the good things that We have provided for you, and be grateful to Allah, if it is Him you worship. (sura 2 (the Heifer), verse 172)
Ramadhan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (should be made up) by days later. Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you and perchance you shall be grateful. (sura 2 (the Heifer), verse 185)
O ye who believe! When you prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; rub your heads (with water); and (wash) your feet to the ankles. If you are in a state of ceremonial impurity, bathe your whole body. But if you are ill, or on a journey, or one of you comes from offices of nature, or you have been in contact with women, and you find no water, then take for yourselves clean sand or earth, and rub therewith your faces and hands, Allah doth not wish to place you in a difficulty, but to make you clean, and to complete his favor to you, that you may be grateful. (sura 5 (the Repast), verse 6)
In the Buddhist teachings, there is a slightly different focus. Rather than offering thanks to a God, one should simply “be grateful.” This first passage is very short and comes from the Book of the Twos found in the Anguttara Nikaya.
“Monks, these two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful for a kindness done and feels obligated to repay it. These two people are hard to find in the world.”
This next one is a fair bit longer, so I’ll share just an excerpt. It’s from the 5th passage of the Khuddakapatha, usually translated as Blessings but sometimes as Protection.
Once while the Blessed One was staying in the vicinity of Saavatthi, in the Jeta Grove, in Anaathapi.n.dika’s monastery, a certain deity, whose surpassing brilliance and beauty illumined the entire Jeta Grove, late one night came to the presence of the Blessed One; having come to him and offered profound salutations he stood on one side and spoke to him reverently in the following verse:
Many deities and human beings
Have pondered what are blessings,
Which they hope will bring them safety:
Declare to them, Sir, the Highest Blessing.
(To this the Blessed One replied):
With fools no company keeping.
With the wise ever consorting,
To the worthy homage paying:
This, the Highest Blessing.
Acts of giving, righteous living,
Relatives and kin supporting,
Actions blameless then pursuing:
This, the Highest Blessing.
Right reverence and humility
Contentment and a grateful bearing,
Hearing Dhamma when it’s timely:
This, the Highest Blessing.
My all-time favorite reminder about being thankful comes from Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet. In his poem “Guest House,” he suggests that, perhaps, we should be thankful for everything that comes our way.
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Given all the historical precedent, I’m happy to jump on the be-grateful-on-a-daily-basis bandwagon, but don’t expect to see my gratitude journal posted on Facebook. I spend most of my gratitude time staring at red lights. I rack up a fair bit of mileage driving my kids around after school. Unfortunately, that puts me on the roads at the same time as everyone else, which means I spend a fair bit of time sitting in traffic. Instead of feeling frustrated, I remind myself that it’s a good time to access that gratitude list scurrying around in the back of my brain. Meister Eckhart, the German philosopher and mystic may have put it best when he said, “If the only prayer you ever pray is ‘thank you’ that would suffice.” Now there’s a form of school prayer I could support!
Bhikkhu, T. Dullabha Sutta: Hard to Find (AN 2.119). Trans. Access to Insight, 2010. Web. 12 Nov., 2014. <http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an02/an02.119.than.html>
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.
Soni, R.L. Mangala Sutta: Blessings (Khp 5). Trans. Access to Insight, 2013. Web. 12 Nov., 2014. <http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/khp/khp.5.soni.html>
The Essential Rumi: New Expanded Edition. Trans. Coleman Barks. NY: Harper One. 2004. p. 109. Print.
Yusuf Ali, A. The Qur’an. Trans. Istanbul, Turkey: ASIR MEDIA, 2002. Print.
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]