Years ago I pasted up a comic that features a matronly character with a cat purring at her feet. Ironically, it was from the strip called “Mutts,” but it wasn’t the mismatch between title and illustration that caused me to cut it out. Instead, it was the accompanying quotation attributed to Meister Eckhart, a late-medieval Dominican mystic. The quotation is this: “If the only prayer you say in your life is thank you, that would suffice.”
That yellowed comic still hangs on a wall in our home, but it’s not in a place where I look at it every day. Nonetheless, the sentiment it conveys, that particular strip’s message and challenge, has never been far from my thoughts – it’s been nagging me and bothering me ever since I taped it up.
And just last week, it came leaping out at me at daily Mass. The Gospel was from Luke 17, the one where the ten lepers begged Jesus for pity and healing. Jesus promptly sends them on their way to – a doctor? a hospital? Nope, a priest! Yet, they went anyway and – lo and behold – they were all immediately freed from their disease and restored to wholeness! Alleluia!
You’ll probably recall what happens next: Nine of the ten take off – presumably to enjoy their newfound health, to share their miraculous recovery with family and friends, to pick up the loose ends of their lives that they’d abandoned years before – but one, only one, turned back to Jesus to give thanks.
That doesn’t mean the other nine weren’t grateful – no doubt, they were, and maybe they even pondered the connection between Jesus’ odd directive and their sudden good fortune. But, for whatever reason, only the one – an outsider, it turns out, a Samaritan – considered it needful, even necessary, to return to Jesus, glorify God, and give thanks.
Now what’s noteworthy – even startling – is Jesus’ response to this one: “Stand up and go,” he says. “Your faith has saved you.” In a sense, it was faith that saved all ten, at least from their leprosy. All of them clearly took it on faith that following Jesus’ offbeat command might lead to a satisfactory outcome – which it did. Yet there was something more going on in the one who expressed his gratitude: His physical healing was accompanied by – or, most likely, almost assuredly, preceded by – a spiritual healing. His was a temporal restoration that aligned with an eternal one.
And I think that’s what the Meister Eckhart quotation is all about: that a heartfelt and robust prayer of thanksgiving – not just thanksgiving itself – constitutes a bare minimum. At least for Christians.
We’re just a couple days away from our national Thanksgiving observance. It’s a most excellent holiday, not just for the family and friends, the feasting and football, but also for the opportunity to dwell as a people – even briefly, before the Mall opens – on what we’re grateful for. And we will do that. We’ll go around our tables and name people and events and things for which we are thankful, no matter how corny it seems – and that’s all right and good. Despite our ills and travails, even the unspeakable ones, we can all come up with something to be grateful for.
But it’s the next part that’s so important – the moment when most of us will follow our declarations of thanks with bows of head and voiced acknowledgements of God. That’s what transforms our natural thanksgiving into something supernatural – the same thing that set apart the one leper from the other nine. Moreover, it’s an indispensable dimension of our Catholic identity. “Eucharist,” after all, literally means “thanksgiving” – it is a sacrament of gratitude, the sacrament of gratitude – and since the Eucharist is the “source and summit” (CCC 1324) of the Christian life, then it’s fair to say that gratitude is Christianity, gratitude is Catholicism.
Which brings me back to that Samaritan leper, the one who came back to give thanks. Despite his disfiguring illness and isolation, which he shared with the other nine, this one apparently had somehow retained a fundamental gratitude – stubbornly, I suspect, perhaps even foolishly in the eyes of his comrades. They were lepers, after all, outcasts already dead in society’s eyes. Yet thanks came readily to this one’s lips. It was there all along and it compelled him to act.
Similarly, we do well to remember that Jesus instituted the Eucharist – our defining sacrament of gratitude – on the eve of his crucifixion. He knew what lay ahead, and yet he still gave thanks – and directed his followers to do likewise. Thus, for Christians, gratitude is essential regardless of circumstances. It’s the key, it’s the secret of our religion: A gratitudinous faith is authentic only to the degree that we embrace it – or at least attempt to embrace it – when giving thanks isn’t so easy.
That’s why the Mutts comic featuring that Eckhart quotation continues to bug me, because it’s a tall order to prayerfully and sincerely give thanks in the midst of our struggles, burdens, and disappointments. Apparently it also bugs Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the Mutts strip, because he’s been featuring the same quote around Thanksgiving intermittently for years. If you get Mutts in your local paper, look for it this Thursday – it might be there. But even if it’s not, keep it in mind and re-commit yourself to living gratitude, not just on Thursday, but every day. Do it with a Eucharistic mindset and commitment, and it will indeed suffice.
This essay was adapted from a reflection given on Grandparents’ Day (21 Nov. 2017) at Marian High School, Mishawaka, Indiana.