Does Anyone Say Grace Anymore?

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.”


The Value of a Meal

It’s odd to me that the issue of little toys included with McDonald’s Happy Meals has raised a sense of consumer indignation.  The corporate megalith covets young customers, not least because they have a whole lifetime for eating fast food, and consequently goes to all kinds of lengths to swiftly and surely draw our children in.   Think indestructible plastic seating, the predictability of the salty/sweet food, the concept of a Happy Meal itself, the colourful boxes, the play centres, the mascot – we must not forget Ronald.  Given this, what is it about the plastic trinket that is the rallying cry for ‘unfair marketing’?

I’m no fan of disposable plastic trinkets or sales ploys directed at children, but there are a host of other reasons to fret about McDonald’s.   They span a broad spectrum, from basic concerns over animal cruelty (have you heard of the concentrated animal feeding operation?  there is a very real cost to producing cheap meat), the consequences of mass potato farming, the conscious reduction of the worker’s role to ensure access to minimum-waged labour in the face of high employee turnover, the science behind the food, and the nutritional implications of the menu.

These and other topics are canvassed in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation:  The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, which forever changed the way my husband and I look at places like McDonald’s. We also read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which journalist Michael Pollan traces the origins of four meals, including a fast food meal.  It’s a positive romp through food politics, as entertaining as it is instructive.

We rarely ate fast food before, but after learning about the industry through these and other materials, we had to stop altogether.  This means we have two boys, four and two, who have not yet crossed the golden arched threshold.  Our family members respect our wishes when they take our kids out.  It hasn’t been a big deal.

Some people may see this as an extreme position, perhaps as the withholding of childhood joys or rituals.  These sentiments don’t move me.  I’d rather help my children find their happiness and rites of passage according to our own values, rather than having them handed down by entities that hold no interest in who they are, but the spending dollars they represent.

I understand that my children will likely eat at McDonald’s one day, just as they will experiment with other experiences I may not favour.  When they do, we’ll talk about the choices we’ve made as a family, and hope that those choices will help them define their own values over time.  Plastic trinkets might enter the conversation, but they’ll just take up one small corner of it.