Dear Donagh..., I do a bit of parish ministry and one of the team is so religious in her talk that it freaks me out. Every second word out of her mouth is ‘thank God’ and ‘praise the Lord’. She even says Praise the Lord when something awful has happened. I said to her one day What does Praise the Lord mean? She looked at me as if I had two heads on me and said nothing. She probably thinks I'm a complete pagan. The reason I'm asking you about it is that it’s having the opposite effect on me. I avoid all that kind of talk now. But that doesn’t seem right either. What do you think about it? Karen
Dear Karen, I used to suffer from someone who never stopped saying ‘Alleluia!’ all day – even on the phone, when there was no one within physical reach. Even the best words wear out when they are overused. There’s a phrase I hate: “Bring God into it.” God is already in everything and doesn’t need to be brought along on a lead. I understand your reaction.
The Psalms are called tehilim in Hebrew, a word that means ‘praises’. So praising God is quite a normal activity for a religious person. But normal does not mean that it is without depth or mystery. Religion pushes every word beyond its normal limits. But when we use words too fluently we tend to cheapen them. We wouldn’t throw a religious object around carelessly, and we shouldn’t throw religious language around carelessly either. A friend of mine, an artist, said to me recently, “Most religious art now has no spirit; there’s no evidence in it of anything coming to birth; it’s all ready-made.”
What's the mystery in the simple words ‘thank God’? For a start, the word ‘God’ is in it, and that's enough to make it mysterious. But in addition, the idea of thanking God is quite strange once you begin to think about it. If everything that we have and are is God's gift, then there’s no one to receive it! “Our desire to thank you is itself your gift” (Preface of the Mass). Who is thanking God? Thanking God must be quite different from thanking another person.
In The Way of Chuang Tzu (not a translation of Chuang Tzu, but inspired by him) Thomas Merton wrote that if you step on a stranger’s foot you make loud apologies, and if you step on your brother’s foot you just say ‘Sorry!’ But if you step on your own child’s foot you need say nothing at all; you just hug and comfort the child. The more intimacy the fewer words, till at a certain point there are no words at all. This would suggest that we never have to say sorry or thanks to God!
We do, of course. We do because Jesus did. He thanked the Father, even though the intimacy between them was the very oneness of God. At the Eucharist – a word that means ‘to give thanks’ – “Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them” (Luke 22:19). In another place Luke writes, “Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth” (Luke 10:21). Giving thanks is not like giving a receipt; it’s an upsurge of joy. When you are filled with joy you are outside yourself or beyond yourself; you are not identified with your ego. There is no one there for a moment – only joy itself. This is where thanksgiving arises.
Do you thank the ground for holding you up? No, except when you get back to it after you have been too high up a ladder. Normally you take the ground for granted, in the way that small children take their parents for granted. It’s a compliment to be taken for granted. I hope God feels that way too! God has been called “the ground of our being.” If you forget to say thanks, I think God understands! But you know the feeling when you eventually get down from the ladder: you want to hug the ground. That's real thanks, beyond words. And that is what thanking God is like.I don’t know what you can do about your pious companion. You could try enduring her with resignation! Understanding what her pious language is and isn’t may be a help. It surely comes from a good heart, and that's the essential.