Prayer 101: An Attitude of Gratitude

11/22/2010 07:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For years we've had a tradition around our Thanksgiving table. Before we dig into the meat or take that first forkful of mashed potatoes, before the stuffing and the cranberries and long before the pecan pie, we go around one by one and each person, no matter how old or young, says at least one thing they're grateful for.

I've never done a religious litmus test on our guests at Thanksgiving but I'm pretty sure we've had a wide range of views: Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and confirmed atheist. It's that last category, one dear to my heart, that often gets me wondering. If you don't believe in God, of course you can feel grateful. But I ask myself, who do you feel grateful to?

A couple of years ago as an editor at Guideposts magazine I worked with broadcaster Deborah Norville on a story about gratitude. One of the things she suggested and rigorously followed was keeping a journal, writing in it at least three things she was grateful for every day. Seemed like a nice idea. It reminded me of Mom making us write thank-you notes as kids at Christmas to distant relatives even if we didn't particularly like the gift.

"I can't find anything to say about the ugly purple ski cap Great Aunt Margaret sent," we said.

"Sit there long enough and you will," she said. We did and we did. Same with keeping a gratitude journal. If you were on the lookout for something to be grateful for, even on the most rotten of thankless days, you'd find something. Sit there long enough.

What occurs to me is that gratitude, whether directed to Someone or not, is a spiritual state. It's an attempt at humility, a reckoning of your place in the universe, a recognition that you're blessed.

Within weeks of helping Deborah Norville with her article and thinking her idea sounded nice but not terribly practical, I landed in the hospital and underwent the ordeal of open-heart surgery. The recovery was no picnic, and day after day, winded after a half a flight of steps, I wondered if I'd ever feel like myself again. Prayer was particularly hard to come by. I'd sit by my bedside and mutter something, feeling no sense of peace. "Thanks for nothing" was all I could say.

Then one day I recalled the article I'd worked on in what seemed like another era, one of spiritual ease. I took out a piece of paper and started writing a thank-you note. My mom's training and Deborah Norville's at work on me. All at once there was this internal ping. I still felt rotten, my body aching, my head in a fog. But I sensed a connection to the universe, a sureness that life was not without a purpose, and I told myself, "This will be prayer for now."

In that dreary period of recovery, I must have written 75 thank-you notes -- thanks for the flowers, thanks for the prayers, thanks for the chocolate, thanks for the note, thanks for the casserole in the freezer, thanks for the book. Some of the messages were surely inane and with my lousy scrawl, probably unreadable, but they were my link back to the world, back to myself and finally to God.

Now I listen to the expressions of gratitude around the Thanksgiving table with renewed wonder. The kid who's thankful for his soccer season, the woman who celebrates another six months being cancer-free, the grandparent who says thanks for a long life. I don't know where all those thanks are being sent but they feel holy and none of the atheists at my table have ever complained when I followed them up with a prayer of gratitude and an amen of my own.

If you're looking for a place to be grateful, here's a place you can put it down. And take a look at what others are grateful for. The list goes on and on.