Are we giving thanks yet? Each year expands the idea of gratitude as a force in the world as well as a heartfelt emotion.

Refugees from Central Europe acted upon their gratitude. In the 1960s they set up a generous endowment for the British Academy, naming it "Thank-Offering to Britain Fund."

Americans still have to keep Thanksgiving from lapsing into what a theologian once wryly called it: "increasingly a business of congratulating the Almighty upon his most excellent co-workers, ourselves."

Daily, all over the country, there are instances of fortunate people "giving something back" through charity, volunteer work, or taking a cup of soup to a neighbor.

Thanksgiving as reciprocity was literally spelled out in an American schoolroom recitation of 1901:

"First Pupil (holding up card): 'T stands for Thank You...'

"Second Pupil: 'H is for Happy...'

"Twelfth [and last] Pupil: 'G is for Give. If we freely receive/ So let us freely and willingly give.' "

Gratitude is an age-old value in virtually every culture and religion on earth. Now its soaring symbol in modern architecture has reached its 20th anniversary. This is Thanks-Giving Square in Dallas, which uses the hyphen deliberately - to stress the universal action of giving thanks beyond a day of Thanksgiving as celebrated in the United States, Canada, and a number of other countries from Japan to Switzerland. The square's chapel was consecrated on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. After a visit in that year the late Michael Ramsey, 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, praised the positive humbling effect of thankfulness:

"When we together feel it, and express gratitude and thanksgiving for the privileges which we have, then we begin to be humble enough to talk together in charity, and humble enough to be acting together as fellow human beings and thus bringing about the atmosphere in which the great and formidable problems are likely to be solved."

Fostering that healing, problem-solving atmosphere has been a task of the Center for World Thanksgiving. It brings together representatives of various religions as well as of government, education, business, and other fields at Thanks-Giving Square and elsewhere. One example was the seminar "Jews, Christians and Muslims Give Thanks: Thanksgiving in the Monotheistic Religions," put on jointly with Harvard University's Center for the Study of World Religions.

The dedicated Dallasites and others around the world who prevent gratitude from being taken for granted deserve gratitude themselves. As Bible scholar Fred Craddock reminds us: "The words and music of gratitude left unattended can become for both church and society only a tune hummed now and then, here and there, a tune everyone knows and yet no one knows."

Let us sing!

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.