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The Universal Prayer: Thank You

This Thanksgiving I've decided to add two of my favorite quotes together:

Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.

—Abraham Joshua Heschel (Rabbi and mystic, 1907-1972)


If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is “Thank you,” that will suffice.

—Meister Eckhart (Dominican monk and mystic, c.1260 - c.1327)


“Thank you” is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.

—(Kevin Anderson, with a slight assist from his trusty, time-traveling spiritual companions,

Abraham Joshua Heschel and Meister Eckhart)

I was taught in grade school that one cannot add apples and oranges. I read once that although theologians of various religions find much to disagree about, the mystics of those same traditions, who experience God in all people and all things, have no quarrel with one another. So combining the words of these mystics—one Jewish, one Christian—is adding apples to apples. I referred to them above as my time-traveling spiritual companions because reading the words of a human being who lived decades, centuries, or millennia before you is still the only form of time travel known to human beings.

For me, being grateful is rooted in being surprised again and again by the inconceivable gift of life. But who are we thanking when we offer our humble answer to life? Many say God; others say they are grateful but do not believe in God. Giving thanks is perhaps the most basic expression of human spirituality. The inclination to express gratitude is so deep in us, so universal, that it is known to adherents of every religion as well as to those who profess no religion. “Thank you” is the humble answer, the prayer, that unites all human beings. And if all human beings are grateful for the inconceivable surprise of living, we can look more and more for that unifying sameness in one another instead of seeing only differences that, when distorted, lead us to judgment, condemnation, and even the taking of another's inconceivably surprising life.

Wishing you at least one moment this Thanksgiving of awareness of the inconceivable surprise of living!


Below is the essay I wrote to accompany the above Abraham Joshua Heschel quote in The Inconceivable Surprise of Living: Sustaining Wisdom for Spiritual Beings Trying to Be Human (a book of brief essays on 225 of my favorite quotations). The 18-year-old daughter I wrote about moving nine hours from home is now 25 and moving back to the Toledo area!

As I write, our eighteen-year-old daughter Elisabeth is just weeks away from going off to college. Before she goes, we will take a camping trip to the sand dunes along Lake Michigan, something we have done as a family for years. One experience among those many trips stands out as so sacred that it’s difficult not to feel waves of emotion whenever I think of it.

Elisabeth was one year old. It was 3:00 a.m. and she would not stop crying in a camper that served as common sleeping quarters for six of us. None of our usual parenting tricks were working, so I scooped her up in frustration and began climbing the dune that separates the campground from the lake, determined at least to get her away from camp so the others could sleep. Reaching the top of the dune, a steady breeze off the lake greeted us. The Milky Way was in full view. A lighthouse

added an almost too-picturesque touch to the scene.

I reclined in the sand at the top of the dune and positioned Elisabeth face-down on my chest. The breeze and the sound of the waves softed her off to sleep. For a while I watched shooting stars. When I woke two hours later, Elisabeth was still asleep, her body perched on mine like a

frog on a lily pad. The Milky Way had been chased back into imperceptibility by the rising of the star upon which Earth itself depends for life like a suckling child.

The dune, the lake, the breeze, the lighthouse, the shooting stars, awaking with Elisabeth on my chest, the sun rising, and she now seventeen years later about to move nine hours from home—all of it inconceivable, surprising.

copyright 2014 by Kevin Anderson

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