Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday. For one thing, it’s become so commercial, with its orange plastic turkeys and pumpkins, not to mention the tinsel of Christmas that started way back at Hallowe’en, that you can hardly remember to offer thanks. It’s ugly. I want beauty, kindness, thoughtful stillness, not jingles urging me to buy what I don’t need nor others want.
This year, therefore, I will be on a train on Thanksgiving Day, traveling up the Eastern Seaboard to Massachusetts. I figure that the last Thursday in November is the best day all week to travel, for by then “everyone” will have arrived already to gorge on food and football. That whole week will be a horror of hot tempers and traffic jams. But as for giving thanks, isn’t that what Christ admonished us to do—to pray with thanks each hour of each day?
Why? Because gratitude brings happiness. As you give thanks, as you pray with faith and thanks for having already received the blessings you want. . . the Universe opens to pour untold gifts upon our hearts.
OK, I grumble, still caught in sullen resentment, but why do we need a national holiday to remind us of all that? Amused, I watch my mind indulging in irritation. By now I’ve learnt how to catch myself, to laugh at myself, forgive my grumpiness. Who cares? Let go. I’ve also learnt to take my annoyance into prayer. (“God, help me to release my irritation. Bring me back to Center.”)
Prayer has a bad reputation. First we wonder whether we even believe in a God that doesn’t seem to pay much attention, and then we make numerous requests that aren’t answered at all, or else with “No,” or not according to our time frame, or in the way we imagined they ought to be.
“Give me X.”
“Make Suchnsuch not happen.”
“If you get me out of Z, I promise never to do it again.”
In the beginning, our prayers are selfish and self-serving (and we are always at the beginning.) But as we develop spiritually, our voice shifts into prayers of thanks. We’ve learnt that our very Thoughts are prayers, and positive thoughts bring peace and happiness, while the wolfish ones of anger, envy, fear, worry, vengeance and hate merely throw fuel on further hatred and despair. Which will make us happy, an attitude of gratitude or one of hate?
I think there are four stair steps to prayer: Asking. Thanking. Praising or Adoring. And, finally, by grace, some deep Communion with the Divine. But this final step is not ours to command. Still, I think this is what the great Spiritual leaders meant when they enjoined us to pray without ceasing.
We are only human. It’s hard to do. If we frame our prayers as thanks, however, for having already received the gifts we want, the response arrives more quickly. “Thank you for solving this; thank you for resolving this; thanks for bringing me….” Therefore, we discipline our minds to pray with thanksgiving, even as the desperate heart calls out, “Oh, help me, help, help, help.”
Why does gratitude draw angels to our aid? I think that the winds of anger and violence sweep away angels like seagulls in a hurricane. Angels (and we all have guardian angels helping us) work best in love and generosity and joy.
The third stair step draws us into praise, for only the thinnest line divides gratitude from awe and praise. As we notice the blessings poured over us, like grain packed down and overflowing, when we remember how prayers are answered always in our favor (even when the answer is No), what can we do but bow before this Mystery? And here’s the thing: the more we give thanks and the more we give praise . . . the happier and freer we grow.
I was raised on the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father.” Which shows what a good father Jesus had, for it must be a hard prayer to recite if your father was abusive, alcoholic, or violent. It asks four things. Feed me, guide me, forgive me, guard me. And by implication, help me to forgive the ones I’ve hurt. Or the ones whom I resent.
Once I drove the five hours from Washington DC to New York City. At the time I was reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer and this weird counsel to pray without ceasing. What does it even mean, “without ceasing?” At the time I was not sure I believed in God or a higher power, or anything beyond a logical scientific, material world. To whom do you pray, if you don’t believe in something Out There? No matter. For five hours I repeated the prayer aloud. “Our Father”—What does father mean? “Which lives in Heaven—” Where/what is heaven? “Hallowed be thy name.” What does hallowed mean? Sacred? Holy? Why?
For five hours I spoke the prayer, deeply listening, until, as I approached the towers of New York, I was in ecstasy. Flying! My god! I was in bliss. Is that why Jesus said to “pray without ceasing?” He was offering us an altered state?
So that’s why I’m looking forward to my train trip on Thanksgiving Day. I want to make it a day of thanks. Cocooned by the gentle rocking of the train from news of the daily horrors, pain, and suffering around the world; protected from the daily demands to hurry, spend, buy, be festive, or indulge in a TV orgy of emotional starvation; isolated in my car and in silence, I hope to dip deeply into prayer and praise.
There’s so much to be thankful for: First for being me, on this day, in this century, in this free country, for health, for love, and for having arms to hug my loved ones with, and tongue with which to taste or murmur words, and even for the gift of pain in my aging feet or back, which indicates that I’m still alive; and in the wild wider sense for the rocking train that speeds me past roads, cities, trees and the winter-blasted grasses that cover the thin skin of this beautiful planet— this tiny rock that swings around one small star in one of the most insignificant galaxies at the edge of hundreds of billions of galaxies— all moving in an ever-expanding universe of unknowable dimensions, unimaginable eternity . . . .
So, let’s keep giving thanks, in praise and adoration, but every hour of each day, for the foot steps of gratitude beat deep our bridle path to joy. Leaving plastic turkeys behind for the “Path of Prayer”.
© 2019 Sophy Burnham