Thanksgiving – The Silent Yet Physical Liturgy
One cannot think of the contemplative prayer of thanksgiving without calling to mind our Eucharistic liturgy. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word meaning thanksgiving. If the central act of worship in Christianity is the Eucharist (our meal of communion with God and each other) then thanksgiving as a spiritual virtue must certainly be one of the essential attitudes of our religion.
Just as our worship is more than the words we say at the Sunday service, so also our thanksgiving is more than the words we say. We often say “thank you” – to the clerk who gives us our change, to the paper deliverer who hands us our daily news, to the server who shows us to our table and brings us our food, to our friends and family as we open our birthday gifts, etc. etc. If we are not truly appreciative deep in our soul, these expressions of gratitude are just words, polite knee jerk reactions, rote habits.
In the old Latin liturgy the service ends with the words “Ite, missa est.” It has been mistakenly translated as “go the mass is ended.” But it actually means “Go, it has been sent.” (perfect passive participle of mittere) Not “you” have been sent, but “it” has been sent. What has been sent? That which is deep behind the words of our Sunday liturgy has been sent to the entire world, all the cosmos.
However, we must “go” out there into the world to find it, follow it, be part of it. I believe we find it in appreciation and gratitude. It’s not about the words we say but about what is deep in our hearts. What is deep in our hearts is pre-verbal; and it is most authentically contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer is not navel gazing on some mountain top. It is the deep-seated profound intense gratitude as we engage with others, with other humans and other realities. We talk about the real presence in the Eucharist. Now we must “go” (ite) and find the real presence in the world. Physicists call this quantum entanglement. Richard Rohr put it this way: “The true contemplative mind does not deny the utter ‘facticity’ of the outer world but allows outer reality to be its guide and teacher.” The search we are on is not to understand, but without mental definitions to know what stands under everyone and every thing. It is not what we think about it, but what we experience.
When we find what stands under, it is hard not to be grateful. When we realize what is before us we might use words like “thank you.” Or maybe just a look would be more poignant. Whatever the response, it is evident that we have been surprised by joy. That is why true gratitude on the contemplative level is associated with happiness and kindness. A grateful person can be happy. A happy person can be kind. A kind person can cause others to be grateful and happy and kind. It is contagious. You see, contemplative prayer is not navel gazing. It goes out to the world and changes it. Ite, missa est. The contemplative person is a vital participant in quantum entanglement.
Let’s look again at the Eucharistic liturgy, that core liturgical event in Christianity that sends us forth. In spite of all the words spoken in the service, try focusing in a silent inner posture, in a quiet inner place, on the actions in order to get in touch with what stands under these actions. We sit close to others in the room. We see them, maybe smell them. Look at their bright or dull clothes. At the exchange of peace we hug and kiss. Feel the flesh, warm or cold. At the table the presider takes bread and pours wine. He or she extends hands over the bread and wine. At that action, get in touch with the Spirit swirling in the room. The presider breaks bread. We put out our hands and take bread and eat. Taste it in our mouths as we chew. We take the cup and drink. Feel it cross our taste buds, and feel it go down our inners. Sure we use words. But our worship is primarily done physically. Contemplative prayer can be engaged in with no physical action. But the Christian way encourages incarnation, enfleshment. When that happens we know what stands under. We are grateful. That is the contemplative prayer of thanksgiving.
Now go. It has been sent. It is everywhere.