It is such a simple phrase: thank you. Two small words can say so much. In many cases they are a gift in return for a gift. As I began to think about this simple phrase, thank you, I realized again how important it is. Furthermore, I realize it is also a potential sacred experience. That was more than I ever imagined.
I have been saying thank you for decades. As I remember my youth, my parents and, especially my dad, were really insistent that I learn to say thank you. I am not sure what was behind his burn for me to learn and practice this habit. I wish I had asked him that question. For some reason it was very important to him. So I dutifully learned to say it. I internalized the act of saying thanks and it became a habit. In my mind I am pretty good at it.
I would like to look at the phrase and the action from a couple perspectives. The first perspective knows that saying thank you is a social grace. I know my dad would say that is how we respond to people when they have given us something or have been nice to us. Simply analyzing that simple phrase from it the social grace perspective reveals some interesting points. Let’s detail those.
Perhaps the most basic to saying thank you is the assumption of some self-awareness. If we are not self-aware, we don’t even realize or recognize that someone has done something for us. Of course, sometimes it is pretty evident. If someone hands me a $20 bill, I am aware enough to know I have $20 bucks that I did not work for or find on the ground. It is gift and I say thanks.
This is a good point because I also realize that some of us are actually not very self-aware. Oh, we might be aware enough to know that a $20 placed in our hands is a gift, since we did not have it a minute ago. But other things are metaphorically plunked into our hands and our lives and we are not aware of it. I know people do countless things for me that I would miss if I were not pretty self-aware. I want to be alert to catch some of this less obvious gifts for which I should say thank you.
The next thing I am sure is true is that too many of us are too self-centered to recognize many of the gifts that come our way. Sometimes I erroneously think everything I get is because I deserve it. I work hard, I pay my dues, etc. These all are announcements that whatever I get, I deserve. Of course some of this is true. But I dare say, in most things I word hard at, there is also an element of giftedness.
The worst form of self-centeredness is pure selfishness. In this scenario I not only assume that what I get, I deserve. Now I am assuming that I actually am owed everything I get. Since I am the center of my little universe, it is all mine anyway. Why should I say thanks for what is naturally mine? We all know these kinds of folks are not much fun to be around.
I want to move from the level of thanks, which is a social grace to the level where I see thanks as a spiritual issue. That is not obvious and actually took learning a foreign language to awaken my fully to its reality. For me to acknowledge thanks as a spiritual phenomenon means it has to be somehow a moment of the sacred. To be spiritual is to participate in the sacred---which can mean God, the Spirit or however we want to conceive of the sacred.
I grasped this connection most clearly when I was studying eucharistic theology. I purposely used that big, foreign word in order to make my point. As a Quaker I am sure I never heard that word, Eucharist, until college or maybe graduate school. As Catholics would know, the Eucharist is Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper. It is a sacrament. Precisely, it refers to the wafer and wine, which are the elements served in communion. We get to the point when we recall the words of Jesus, which every priest utters at that sacred moment.
The biblical text says that Jesus “took bread, gave thanks, broke it and give it to the disciples.” The words, “give thanks” are the Greek word, eucharisteo---eucharist. The eucharist is a sacred moment---the moment when the bread also becomes sacred and is then given to us---to give us a sacred encounter. This is instructive.
I want to argue that all “giving thanks” can become a moment of sacred encounter. Saying thanks creates the space and the moment when the Spirit can be invited to bless the experience. All of these Eucharistic moments---moments of thanks---do not have to be at the level of sacrament. Or better, perhaps they all become little sacramental moments.
I am positive my dad never thought at this level. But maybe he had an intuition; he certainly knew saying thanks was important. I simply agree it is important and add that it can also be sacramental. When I see it this way, I can never again use the phrase, thank you, as a throw away phrase simply to be nice.