This is the famous 1918 photograph by Eric Enstrom called “Grace”.
It has hung in the dining room of my parents’ house since before I was born. Interestingly, although my mother was raised by a devout family in a very religious village, her family never said “grace” – a prayer said before eating. It’s hard to say whether or not my father’s family did… probably they didn’t, except, I would guess, on holidays and, then, probably only at his aunt or older sister’s promptings. This helps to explain why my parents never said a prayer at mealtime when they were married. Not until my older sister changed things.
When she, our parents’ firstborn, was not yet three, she spent a lot of time at the neighbor’s house while my mother worked. They were Seventh-day Adventists, or something like that, and always said a prayer before eating. This impacted her greatly (as it does most young children) and she wanted to do it always. So, although my sister now groans whenever we stop to pray before taking a bite, she was the one that insisted the tradition begin in our family.
She introduced to them, and so to me, the simple singsong prayer that many pray before mealtime:
God is great, God is good; Let us thank God for our food. Amen.
After my sister left for college, I came to the age of thinking about things on my own and became dissatisfied with this prayer. I wasn’t convinced of anything enough to make big changes – I probably just wanted to add my individual stamp. So, I trained my parents to include another simple phrase between food and amen:
… and all of our blessings.
As I grew through the college years without attending one, I went off on my own intellectual journeys. Just before atheism and during atheism, I don’t remember caring much about any prayers over food. Although, pre and post, I do remember bringing to my mind words of thanksgiving for the life of the animal whose remains were upon my plate. At that time, I wanted to immerse myself into a native, nature-based spirituality – or, at least, sensitivity.
But, that wasn’t really prayer.
Not until after I chose Christianity did mealtime prayers became important to me as an act of faith. These prayers, I saw, are more than a deeply felt appreciation for the bounty of the earth and the animal lives ended so that I may thrive. They must be filled with real gratitude – and real gratitude cannot exist without a humble acceptance of utter dependence. And it is not just about being dependent upon earthly food. We, ourselves, body, mind, heart, and soul, are dependent upon existence itself – dependent upon the Uncreated Creator Who brought each and every one of us into being.
Giving Real Thanks
Prayer is not about feelings. It’s not about feeling grateful or feeling connected. It’s about being grateful and being connected. You don’t feel a prayer, or even think a prayer, you live a prayer. The gratitude shows in not wanting to eat one single bite before taking a moment to express thanks. For, who brought into being the fruits, vegetables, grains, and animals? Including ourselves? We are nothing without God. Truly, God is great and God is good.
The connection comes in the outward expression of the prayer. Words have auditory form and shape, just as food has tactile form and shape. Eating is a process just as saying a prayer is a process. Our ideas about the food are not separate from or different than the food itself. The food comes from the bounty of the Creator – whether we think about it or not. (Whether we like it or not.) We need the food – whether we mentally or verbally acknowledge that or not. (Whether we like it or not.) But, by outwardly acknowledging our needs being satisfied by God, we live out the truth of life. In this way we see that gratitude is connection and connection is gratitude.
Gratitude also means enjoyment. Food is not merely fuel without which we would die. Food is also beauty. Grateful, yes, I would be if I were starving and you slapped a lump of something nutritious, but tasteless and ugly, on my plate. But, our lives are not merely about material continuation gained through nutrition. We are made for joy. If I were starving and you loved me, you would surely serve me something more appetizing, more lovely, more for the whole of me. Love reveals truth. It is great and good for me to receive, along with nutrition, beauty and pleasure – to receive joy – from every food substance that I eat.
When I eat a meal in community, the joy multiplies. For, not only am I enjoying what I am eating but, also, where I am eating and with whom I am eating. Prayer before meals can help us to attend – to our food, to one another, and, so, to our Creator, the Creator of all. We are always present when we eat – we can’t eat long distance from our food. But, do we attend to our presence with the food, with the people, with God? (More thoughts on this in Fr. Stephen Freeman’s great article with comments, found HERE.)
Meals are often community events, either in grand ways, as in holidays and banquets, or in small ways, like everyday meals taken at home, work, school, or even at a restaurant. It was the thought of praying in a restaurant that really struck me as I became a Christian…
How often do people pray before eating in a restaurant? Do you? We never did as a family. But, much to my discomfort, that began to change…
I stick out a lot in a crowd, like in a restaurant. I’m the crippled, crumpled one in the wheelchair that someone else has to feed – often with messy results. It’s not pretty. Did I really want to draw more attention to myself by praying out loud?
More on the growth of my prayer life, and the ramifications for my daily life, in next week’s reflection.
© 2016 Christina Chase
photo source: learn more at gracebyEnstrom.com