“Dear Lord, Thank you for this food we are about to eat. Bless it to our bodies and bless us in thy service. Amen.”
That is the prayer heard at suppertime in my house when I was a child. I don't remember my father varying much from that table grace. But he was a minister and an Air Force chaplain, so he might have been more elaborate on holidays or other occasions when he was seen as preacher, not just Papa.
Saying grace before a meal “brings a note of dignity to eating, to gathering, and the notion of friendship,” said Adrian Butash, author of what he says is the first ever anthology of food graces and blessings. His book, Bless This Food: Ancient & Contemporary Graces from Around the World, was originally published in 1993, revised, and this year republished as a paperback.
A favorite prayer of Mr. Butash's is “lovely and contemporary for today,” he said. It was written by Roman Catholic priest the Rev. John Giuliani as a four-line poem:
Bless our hearts
to hear in the
breaking of bread
the song of the universe.
Father Giuliani founded inner-city soup kitchens in Bridgeport and Norwalk, Conn.
Most prayers in Bless This Food come with a description of the origin, “which is to me very fascinating, how they came to be in our culture,” Mr. Butash said. He lists 38 countries and cultures for the prayers in his book, including prayers from 11 religious traditions and sacred texts. There are 49 named authors of graces.
Mr. Butash says that praying before a meal “provokes the notion of grace and the act of saying grace.” It isn't just a ritual that gives attention to the value of food. “”I think one of the points that is very warm in regard for me, it seems to have introduced faith to families that ordinarily wouldn't do it,” he said. He encourages families to take the book of graces “off the shelf. Keep it on the dining table, in the kitchen,” where the family dinner is eaten. “If a child can read, now you can hand the book to the child and they can flip through and pick a grace. Now the child can play a heroic role, one that inculcates them into the family.”
At a recent meal at a friend's house, Simple Graces for Every Meal, a hand-bound booklet available from www.TendingJoy.com, was on the table. Its author, Ingrid Goff-Maidoff, “wrote the graces to create verses that are inclusive and comfortable for whomever happens to be at the table,” she said in an email. “We have many friends uncomfortable with religious language.”
A table grace doesn't need religious language to bring a circle of people together over a meal. Graces can praise God for some folks, for others the prayer reveres the animals that provided the meat, and there are people who express appreciation for all the human hands that brought the dinner from the field to the kitchen to the table. However the meditation is practiced—“There is silent, spoken, sung, sign language,” Mr. Butash said, and he includes two signed graces in his book—it gives attention to the people assembled, to the awe of life seen in sustenance.
Whether solo diners or a large group, table grace can give a person a concentrated time to pause, a moment to reflect before an almost automatic three-times-a-day feeding. The ritual of grace can focus spiritual practice and intentionally call attention to giving thanks.
Thanksgiving is a particular time for table grace for many who normally don't have a meal blessing, for it's a holiday that began with a feast. Some groups might hear a grace on Thanksgiving that competes for space with the bountiful spread. Others could get a short and sweet prayer delivered with a consciousness toward the food staying hot.
For a Thanksgiving prayer, Mr. Butash said that a Chinese poem by Ch'eng-kung Sui, who died in the year 273, is striking to him:
I sent out invitations
To summon guests.
I collected together all my friends.
And ample feasting:
Discussion of philosophy,
Investigation of subtleties.
And minds at one.
By discharge of emotion!
“It talks about friendliness and telling stories at the table,” Mr. Butash said. “That's what thanksgiving to me is all about.”
When our sons are with us in Toledo, we hear their standard table grace—much less elaborate than my dad's prayer. Their grace is only four words long, but it's still thankful: “God's neat, let's eat.” So be it.