If the only prayer you said was “thank you,” that would be enough. —Meister Eckhart
I was sitting quietly early this morning, before the rush of life commenced, and was overwhelmed with an undefined sense of gratitude. Actually, it was very defined. It was a visceral awareness of the gratuitousness of existence (i.e., the fact that anything exists at all is a sheer gift bereft of any claim to entitlement). “Gratuitous” captures this well, I think, as it means “not necessary or justified.”
God needn’t have created anything at all, yet chose to. While we often complain to God that we do not yet possess wellbeing, we forget that we already possess something far more radical, extraordinary, stunning, mind-blowing and grounding: being. I am.
Become aware at this very moment that there is something rather than nothing, there is a you, and a whole massive cosmos that did not have to exist at all, but does. Existence is a mystery, a source of wonder, and its very be-ing itself is already excessive.
Another vantage on this. I shared with my students this summer that for most of the Old Testament faithful men and women, there was no clear awareness of a personal afterlife, of a resurrection from the dead that promised reward for justice and punishment for injustice. With death, identity faded into the shadows of nonexistence.
I call to you, Lord, all the day long; to your I stretch out my hands. Will you work your wonders for the dead? Will the shades stand and praise you? Will your love be told in the grave or your faithfulness among the dead? Will your wonders be known in the dark or your justice in the land of oblivion?
The answer to Psalm 88’s desperate questions? No. The idea of “eternal life” in Judaism only came later, closer to the time of Jesus.
So imagine, would you remain faithful to God and his commandments in this life, as did the Hebrew saints, amid great hardships and sufferings, amid unanswered questions about good and evil, with no belief that after death an eternal life awaited you? No reward, other than knowing you lived in fidelity, here and now, to the will of the good God who made you and chose you to be his own in this world? Would you have done so wholeheartedly? Would you say, as Tennyson once said so beautifully,
I hold it true, whate’er befall; I feel it, when I sorrow most; ‘Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all.
Back to my morning’s silent insight. It is quintessentially a Jewish-Christian instinct to see gratitude as the foundational virtue on which all else is built, the attitude that sustains all other good things. And this gratitude is not, in the first instance, for this or that good thing, or even for well-being, but simply for the very fact that you, I, or anything exists at all. Ever has, ever will. Period.
When you begin each day with that mindset, it revolutionizes the way you experience life. And then the supererogatory “over-the-top” excess of well-being that God has in fact granted us in Christ, with the hoped promise of a new creation in which “all will be well in all manner of being well,” becomes a fresh cause to “leap for joy” (Luke 6:23).
In this dayenu (song), the Jewish soul lives in a constant thankful awareness of a God who says to each of us, in each and every moment, “I love you: I want you to be.” Only then, like the prophet Habakkuk, we can sing:
For even though the fig tree does not blossom, nor fruit grow on our vines, even though the olive crop fail and fields produce no harvest, even though flocks vanish from the folds and stalls stand empty of cattle, yet I will rejoice in the Lord and exult in God my savior.
Dr. Tom Neal presently serves as Academic Dean and Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana. Tom received a Masters in Systematic Theology from Mount St. Mary’s University and a PhD in Religion at Florida State University.