Does anyone say grace anymore? We never did when I was growing up, and I’m guessing my family was typical in this way. I don’t remember other families saying grace when we visited their homes.
Truthfully, I’m catching myself a little off-guard by my really strong desire to say a blessing at mealtimes. I don’t come from a strong religious background – born to parents of Hindu, Buddhist, and pagan traditions and then growing up in Canada, my religious bearings were not only faint but also confused.
So I can’t explain the desire through past practice or religious bent. Trying to work it out for myself, I think it must come from an intention to live more mindfully and, having been graced with love beyond my wildest dreams through motherhood, a growing need to simply express gratitude.
Food seems like a natural place to do it, partly because what we eat has such important personal and political ramifications (good entry points into these issues are The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser).
But the other reason food seems like a natural place to give thanks is because the need to eat is so universal and constant. I recently picked up A Grateful Heart, edited by M.J. Ryan, which contains this passage in the foreward by William Shore:
“I’ve always viewed mealtime as a humbling moment. The need to eat not only unites us all but underscores a basic human frailty. Nature marks time in eons, yet each of us needs to eat every few hours, a fraction of time almost too infinitesimal for nature to even measure. But the need is true and unrelenting for each and every one of us, no matter how rich or poor, powerful or oppressed, weak or strong – it is an emblem of our humanness. It’s almost as if nature had created an infallible way to remind us, daily and nearly hourly, that we are bound to and dependent upon every other living thing in this universe, a knowledge that is surely the ultimate blessing.”
Reviewing this book, which is a collection of “blessings” from a wide variety of spiritual disciplines and secular perspectives, just confirmed what I already knew I had to do. And that’s to create some space in our lives, however ragged and imperfect the circumstances may be, for a moment of connection and gratitude before eating dinner.
This means that most nights, when it’s just me and my 4 and 2 year old sons (my husband works most evenings), we take the time to set the table (it’s surprising how much a 4 year old can assist with this if allowed and encouraged). When seated together, we hold hands and recite our blessing.
There’s little formality, and I make no reprimands when the children climb into their seats and hungrily start eating before I sit down. I just gather their attention for a moment when we are ready, smiling and making eye contact, and hope that I am planting some good seeds in fertile soil this way.
There are some beautiful blessings in The Grateful Heart and I’ve taken note of them for future reference. But for now, for my little guys, I wanted something more accessible and simple, and I found myself making this up on the spot the first night we tried it. I’m sure it will change, but it suits us well now:
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the love we keep,
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you, for everything.
The boys have taken to it the way small children take to anything pleasant: readily and earnestly. Just a couple of days after we started, my older son asked if were going to say a blessing before I had a chance to propose it myself.
It is such a simple gesture and ritual, and yet it fills me with such pleasure. It is almost a relief, this release of grateful energy. How is it that giving thanks to others is a means by which to engender such good feeling in myself?
Stephen Hyde might know the answer to this, if the following excerpt from his article called “Great Man Going” is an indication. His are the passages that close the introduction to A Grateful Heart:
“When was the last time, if ever, you saw anyone at McDonald’s offer an expression of thanks… for his or her food? Billions of burgers consumed yet not a solitary act of gratitude, individual or corporate, no festival to honor the bovine being in myth and art and imagination, or to celebrate the annual resurrection of the potato. How can this be? What kind of monstrous indifference to the taking of life does this suggest? What kind of heinous disrespect for the life that sustains human life? What is the real price we pay for the convenience of fast and plentiful food? Apathy, neglect, isolation? Or is it something deeper, the loss of relationship, or wholeness, of soul? …
Once, the rituals of gratitude informed nearly every aspect of human life. Most of these we have abandoned or forgotten. Now, try to imagine this: for every one of those burgers sold, a song raised, a life recalled, a measure of grace restored.”
Meals are such a powerful time to connect and recharge. I hadn’t noticed how ritualized our asking each other about our days had become when we gathered for dinner. I noticed the extent to which it is a habit to make it the first, automatic question when we sit down because when he was three, as soon as I sat down, Rowan began to say, “Mumma, ask me how my day was.” I love the nights all five of us eat together and share our days’ news. I am more adventurous with the menu if Ted is home for dinner, I enjoy my meal more, and I am more relaxed. Adrienne Rich writes about the concept of mother time, that time in the summer when she was alone with her kids at a cottage and there was no schedule, no obligations. I think about that and about how freeing it can be but also how much I crave structure and ritual and effort.
There are so many ways to establish connection – I love that the mealtime ritual for your family was asking after one another. I think children in particular come to rely on these pleasant patterns quickly, and it can really ground a family in togetherness.
There’s a time too for letting it all go out the window, and I guess because our informal homelife is not led by established practice or religion, it’s easy for us to do what feels right for us. Overall, I like the idea of feeling and expressing gratitude, whatever way it changes over time, to be our default practice.
Perhaps in nostalgia for my childhood, I suggested to my husband recently that we find or devise some kind of a ceremonial way to begin our family suppers. He, the staunch atheist, thought anything of that kind smacked too much of religion; I will have to work on him. Unprompted by us, our 4-year-old waits quietly as we bustle around getting everything on the table, and it’s often only once we have started to eat that she says, “May I start eating now?” I am not sure where she gets this from, but it reinforces my sense that we need some formal way of kicking off the meal. I will pick up A Grateful Heart!
It wasn’t long ago that I would have described myself as an atheist, and like your husband stiffened at practices like saying a blessing! I’ve changed some though, and no longer see a means of expressing gratitude as tied with religion – for me, it’s more a tie with life itself I think. I am reading a book called Simple Parenting, in which the author’s family observes some moments of silence before mealtimes for calmness and connection. I thought that was lovely too.
What a beautiful anecdote you shared of your daughter – thank you for sharing it. I wonder how that impulse in her will unfold over time…