religion & philosophythat's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Saying “thank you” not as easy as it sounds

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I think the best thing that has ever been said on the subject of prayer was said by the medieval mystic known as Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

This, of course, is precisely the most difficult prayer to utter when you are not feeling at all reverent …and yet it would seem the one most necessary at precisely such a time.

I have been in something of a funk lately. Several different things seem to have contributed to this. Walking to and from work, I have been more acutely aware than before of the changes that have taken place in Philadelphia over the years. There are so many buildings there now that were not there when I was growing up, and those that were there when I was growing up, if they have not been demolished, have been spiffed up almost beyond recognition.

I am not especially averse to change, especially change for the better. But the sudden realization that a world I had known so well for so long had been transmogrified was unnerving, especially since I had scarcely noticed the change taking place.

But there were other, grimmer things contributing to my funk. I received word that a college chum had died. Though younger than I, he had been ill for some time, enfeebled by strokes. I remembered how handsome and high-spirited he had been.

Next a neighbor died, a very nice fellow who lived only a couple of doors away. Then, only yesterday, I learned that a woman I had known since her teens — a friend of my oldest stepdaughter — was being treated for breast cancer. And just today I was told that another woman whom I have known a very long time may have early onset dementia.

Obviously, I have a lot to be thankful for, since I am in pretty good health and am still productive. I could easily match the foregoing litany of woe with one of good fortune.

But I don’t think thankfulness for good fortune is quite what Meister Eckhart had in mind. It’s easy to say thanks for good fortune. What about life in toto, with all of its misfortunes, disappointments, and pain?

The prayer of thank you Eckhart was suggesting, I think, is an unconditional one. And there can be nothing glib or sentimental about it. To utter such a prayer would entail an unusual leap of faith, in fact. For this is to say thank you come what may. And to utter that, it seems to me, is almost to tempt fate. At least for an ordinary mortal like myself.

So Eckhart’s formula is one of those things that looks great at first glance, but upon closer examination reveals itself as not only not as easy as it sounds, but also quite possibly perilous.

To reach a point where one could utter it, one would have to, in Eliot’s phrase, “apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time.” And that, as Eliot goes on to point out “is an occupation for the saint — / No occupation either, but something given / And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love.”

As one who can scarcely claim to have given my lifetime over to death in love, I suspect I had better steer clear of uttering Eckhart’s cosmic affirmation just yet.

We yearn for satori because we think we would feel so much better if we were enlightened, amd could see into the depths of things and know, as Julian of Norwich said, “all will be well and all manner of thing will be well.” But we fail to realize that the premise for such enlightenment is — again, the words are Eliot’s — “A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything).”

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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4 Responses to “Saying “thank you” not as easy as it sounds”

  1. Great post, Frank. Thanks for matching Meister Eckhart with Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”

  2. This is my favorite Eckhart quote. Gratitude is often the only prayer I can come up with, especially when life’s a famine rather than a feast. But after going through the dark night of the soul when I lived in the New Mexico desert I find it not at all hard to come up with a “Thank You.” Sometimes there’s nothing else.

    Thanks also for connecting this to “Four Quartets.”

    People don’t really understand enlightenment, when they think it’s a state of permanent bliss with no more trouble, no more doubt, no more misery. Actually, what changes is our perspective, our ability to respond flexibly to the moment, and not get stuck on useless and unhelpful thought-forms from our pasts.

    My all-time favorite Zen enlightenment poem tells it like it is:

    “Now that I’m enlightened, I’m just as miserable as ever.”

    The world isn’t what changes. We do. And that’s worth a dozen Thank Yous.

  3. Lovely, thoughtful post, Frank, as ever.

  4. Once a month, our wed night sangha has a reading chosen by a member with discussion afterwards. Last week it was Four Quartets. Go figure.

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