A mealtime ritual: Pause, give thanks, pay attention

At our house, we have a simple mealtime ritual. We pause, then someone says, ‘Thank you, God, for this food, for the farmers, and for the cook.’ Then they add whatever else is on their heart. One night, we might give thanks for mathematics and minecraft. Another time, it might be for horses and sisters and … can’t we just eat now?

But no, we often add one more step, as the cook then tells us where the food comes from: Tonight we have … kale and snowpeas from the garden. Pistou made with parsley, fennel and chilli from the garden, parmesan from Allansford, garlic from Cudgee, and lemons from our friend B. The carrots are from Merri Banks; the potatoes, from the rich soil around Tower Hill; the lentils, from the Wimmera; and … Oh, that’s enough. Let’s eat!

Grace was once a widespread practice, but it seems to have become uncommon. As a family we often have visitors, even Christians, at our table who help themselves even before all the food has been carried out from the kitchen, and who begin eating even before the cook sits down. The expectation that we might pause, give thanks, and break our fast together seems to have disappeared. Perhaps this society’s abundance of food and ease of acquiring it have made it harder to be grateful. Yet our family persists with our odd little ritual when we can, because it works on so many levels.

First, the pause.
The pause is critical. In an age where our attention is constantly captured and everyone seems to be very busy very important, meals are often taken on the run, in the car, or standing at the kitchen bench while scrolling through a phone. The pause reminds us to breathe. Like a micro-Sabbath, the pause tells us that the world will continue on without us; that we are not necessary; that God is in charge; and that we choose where we put our attention. Therefore, before dinner we put our phones away, ideally in another room. At our family table there are no distractions; instead, for a few precious minutes, we will be nourished by God, by the food, by one another and by the news, jokes and stories of the day. So, having put away our phones, having carried in the food, plates, and condiments, and, being an ordinary family, having fought over who gets which chair, we finally sit down together: and we take a breath.

Second, the grace. 
Then we pray. In our house, the grace, that is, a prayer of thanks for the meal, is very simple, often whipped through, sometimes lingered over, occasionally sung. However it’s done, it reminds us that food is not an entitlement, but a gift of the One who sends rain in due season and who feeds every living creature. It helps us remember that not everyone has enough to eat. It hints that God is present in bread and broccoli; it points us to gratitude, awe and wonder. Of course, we cannot compel such awareness or even always achieve it ourselves, but by saying grace we are erecting a signpost; we are opening ourselves to the possibility.

Third, the litany.
The litany is the recount of where our food comes from; by remembering, we are re-membering ourselves. That is, we are putting ourselves back together as members of the community of creation. Most messaging in our society tells us that we are all independent actors, successful (or not) because of our own efforts, and entirely separate from each other and the earth. The litany, then, is a small act of resistance, as it reminds us that there is no food without good soil, good sun, good rain, and human labour: we depend on the earth, and we depend on other people, for the food on our plate. The litany implies a responsibility to care for the earth and for workers … and it pushes me back into the garden, to plant the seeds of next season’s dinner.

Unsurprisingly, our ritual has effects beyond mealtime: it’s become part of a feedback loop in how we shop, cook and eat. It arose as a way to celebrate what we were eating from our own backyard, and it continues to reinforce the choice to spend less time being entertained and more time working in the garden, ensuring there will be food on the table next week. Too, over the years we’ve moved in and out of being vegetarian; after pausing and praying, I’d hate to admit we were about to eat a tortured processed animal product flown in from overseas wrapped in three layers of plastic! While we do now eat meat (mostly kangaroo for ourselves; other meat with guests), it’s more often simple local plant-based foods and dairy products, and eggs from our chooks. We see where they come from, which makes it easy to be truly and intimately grateful.

Of course, there are nights when everyone’s grumpy, when grace is perfunctory, when people roll their eyes at the litany or we admit we’re eating crap. But most nights, just for a minute, we pause, give thanks, and pay attention: to God, to the food, to where it comes from, and to each other. What about you? How do you eat your meals? Do you give thanks? What helps you remember God’s goodness and God’s gifts?

Shalom,
Alison

Emailed to Sanctuary 18 August 2021 © Sanctuary, 2021. Photo by Edgar Castrejon on Unsplash.

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