Justin Cascio has a prayer, and he just wants to say “thank you.”
For most of my life I was a fervid atheist, but between 10 and 12 years ago, I was a religiously observant Jew. Shomer shabbos is the term we used, which meant that I observed the Sabbath. The rest came along by implication. It wasn’t that I didn’t sin, or even that I followed all the rules. I smoked cigarettes on Shabbat, a no-no, since you can’t light a flame or burn anything. But I tried, and that was the point.
The biggest holiday of the Jewish calendar is the day of repentance: Yom Kippur. It’s a day of fasting and atonement, and my least favorite day of the calendar. While on occasion, fear motivated my religious activity—once, flying on a tiny single-prop puddle jumper from Tampa to Miami, I prayed the Shema, a declaration of faith, the entire 90 minutes of the flight—the prayer that I love, and the one that I still recall, even if I don’t say it out loud, is the one that is for gratitude: the Shehechiyanu. One translation goes like this:
Blessed is the creator of the universe, who has created us, sustained us, and permitted us to experience this season.
We say this prayer at the beginning of festivals, such as the Festival of Lights, or Hanukah (which starts on sundown Tuesday, December 20 this year). We also say this prayer whenever we are especially grateful that we have lived to experience the present moment: because we have passed through such harsh trials, or because the reward before us is so sweet that we feel moved to gratitude.When I came to Judaism, I felt simultaneously high and low. Low, because I had just paid every kind of capital I had, to make a personal voyage. Anyone who has ever come out, made a sea change, gotten clean, or had love turn their life around knows this feeling, but especially if there are people in your life who don’t understand this: why you’re not contented to leave things as they are, why you have to go.
I was faintly aware that my old self would have been confused or embarrassed by my embrace of faith. After a lifetime of guarding against the irrational, I was submitting to what I felt but didn’t understand. I found gratitude in the same place that I found humility. Part of me felt I’d done something like stepping off a cliff, in taking certain leaps of faith, and I was very glad to find myself not only still alive, but full of hope. For once, I belonged, and felt my striving was as human and necessary as anyone else’s. I wanted ritual, specifically for demonstrating how thankful I was to have my life, and my community of faith taught me a simple prayer for giving thanks. For this alone, I would be grateful, and they gave me so much more.
I’m no longer observant as a Jew, though I carry beliefs and a handful of rituals with me. I continue to look for people who live their faith, for examples. Recently, I became interested in the story of Fred Rogers’ life. I watched “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” when I was a young child and, working in a small town grocery behind the meat counter, I would often think of myself as one of “the people in your neighborhood,” like the postal carrier, the farmer, and the accountant. We all had our roles and belonged. Fred Rogers, who passed away in 2003, seemed to me to be a kind of hero, maybe even a saint: someone who lived his faith every day, a role model for the rest of us. One day, he met a man who wanted to know how to pray. Mr. Rogers taught him a very simple prayer, composed of just three words:
“Thank you, God.”
And I thought, that is the most perfect prayer I have ever heard. It is almost everything I’ve ever needed to say out loud to the Universe.
Thank you, God, for my life. For thought and limb. For all of these other people, so I won’t be alone. For the miracles, and the margins of things, where life springs into being.
I wish you all peace and good health this season and in the year to come.
—Photo Gene J. Puskar (AP)/Syracuse.com