November brings a favorite celebration for many of us: a special day set aside to consider our blessings and give thanks. Meister Eckhart noted that if the only prayer we ever offer is, “Thank you,” that would be good enough. If we make of our life a prayer, then giving thanks would be the foundational act from which everything else flows.
The Chinese character for thanks is a combination of three elements that represent the spoken word, body and spirit. By this conceptualization, gratitude involves the whole self through what we say, do and what animates our being.
When we marked the Chinese New Year in my youth, my siblings and I would follow our eldest sister into our parents’ bedroom and lined up in front of them, got down on our knees and bowed in unison. It was our way of thanking our parents for giving us life and the sustenance that allowed us to flourish. We always looked forward to this simple ceremony.
Another vivid memory is watching my nanny (a Buddhist at that time) begin her day with joss sticks in hand, on her knees facing the open window in the kitchen, touching her head to the floor to thank the heavens and the earth. She had little in her life, as she was 9 when she was sold as a servant when her father died of tuberculosis, yet she had this unshakable sense of gratitude.
From this flowed a generosity that led her to give away the bulk of her earnings, first to her mother and then to other people she would describe as “not as fortunate as me.” Somehow, I sensed that her daily ritual was sacred, even before I knew that word. Decades later, I would get down on my knees and offer my nanny tea as part of an adoption ceremony whereby she would no longer be a servant, but become family.
In the mid-1990s, I attended a three-week professional development program that offered much-needed time to think through a potential major change in my career. As each day passed, I grew more anxious as I had not gained any clarity for my quandary. The only “insight” that gripped my attention related to what I wanted most for our two sons (in third and sixth grades at that time).
The revelation was so clear that it might as well have been inscribed on stone tablets. There were three things: I wanted them to know their gifts, to develop these with hard work and to use them to elevate and not diminish others. I was seeking a calculus for a professional decision; instead I got the bearings not only for parenting but for my own commitments.
Jesus asked why only one of the 10 lepers healed returned to give thanks. As in all things, what Jesus asks of us is not for his glory but for our salvation, our joy.
Giving thanks is the first step to knowing God and knowing how intimately present he is in our lives. It invites the reflection of the bounty of God: limitless generosity as he provides us with earthly wonders for the nourishment of our bodies, personal endowments that are uniquely ours to celebrate and share with others, and people who invest themselves in us.
Most important, of course, is the love of God for us, denying us nothing, including his son, all the second chances for the asking, his incarnation as one of us thousands of years ago and continuing communion with us through the sacraments.
Next time, when we cannot sleep, why bother counting sheep? Count blessings instead.
Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.