I admit it: as an adult I have never made prayer before meals part of my regular practice. It just felt too rote, too perfunctory. Add this to the list of things I’ve been reconsidering since having a baby. But, I’m a huge fan of (meaningful) ritual and I am continually exploring what that looks like as we walk through this new season of our lives.
Something about the three of us coming home, rushing to put dinner together, then sitting down in a hurry to eat so we can move on to the next thing doesn't feel right. Adding in a “prayer” just for the sake of it didn’t feel right either. I googled. I asked for suggestions on this forum I’m part of. I researched the historical and scriptural basis for mealtime prayer. What I’ve determined is that - as with so many spiritual practices - there is no right way of doing things. And - as with so many parenting practices - I am not going to try to determine a clear way forward.
One of the main arguments for having a mealtime prayer practice is that it is a perfect space to take a breath; to remind ourselves to be thankful, to acknowledge the gifts God has given us. While this is certainly true and important, in some ways this practice feels like a slap in the face to those who are going without. Acknowledging God’s goodness to us without acknowledging the suffering of others seems hallow. Yet addressing this issue in a mealtime prayer seems like a bit of an over-reach.
Ideally, we should be rightly orienting ourselves toward God through belief and action, then taking a minute of specific reflection to remind ourselves that we are continually in God’s presence, called to continually do God’s work in the world. But I know I’m rarely doing this when I pray before meals. The problem isn’t prayer, it’s me: I’m totally willing to acknowledge that. But is mealtime prayer itself the goal I should be working toward? In other words: is orienting myself correctly a battle worth fighting with myself in this instance?
The mystics say our highest goal should be unity with the divine, that we should always be seeking this goal. If we are, then these little rituals and reminders to “check-in” aren’t really necessary, and in so far as they are, they certainly aren’t perfunctory. But I’m not a desert mother; I haven’t cloistered myself in order to perfect my faith - nor do I think we should. My challenge is: How do I pursue this mystical unity with the divine while being very much in the world? Is mealtime prayer and help or a hinderance to this goal?
Yes, we see examples of Jesus praying, but there’s not evidence (at least that I’ve found) that he prayed over every meal or instructed us to do so. There’s longstanding Jewish tradition of giving thanks for a meal (though sometimes after the meal!) and plenty of prayers for mealtime gratitude throughout all different sects and expressions of Christianity. It’s certainly not inherently a bad thing to do!
But is it the most mindful, conscientious expression of my theology in practice?
For me right now, the answer - again, as with so many spiritual and parental practices! - is yes and no. I want moments of rest and thanksgiving and mindfulness to be part of our family’s ethos until - maybe - one day we cultivate a deeper awareness that we are constantly in the presence of God. But mealtime prayer doesn’t do that for me. It creates more problems than it solves, and while this is probably totally my issue, it’s not a faithful expression of my theology. I don’t think it’s wrong, and I won’t refuse to do it in certain situation or anything like that, but I’m looking for something that makes more sense to me at this point in our life as a family.
I’ve heard suggestions I like, as a way to mark the time before a meal by doing something different: Offering the child a chance to pick / read a prayer from an age-appropriate book of prayers; taking turns having each person in the family choose how to observe time before a meal; holding hands and doing a brief meditation together; reading prayers from Phyllis Tickle’s Fixed Hour Prayer.
These are all things that I will likely implement at some point, and I’d love to hear additional suggestions. For now, I was recently reminded of one of my favorite hymns growing up: For the Beauty of the Earth. We started signing the first stanza at dinner - this both entertains Junia more than a “normal” prayer, and speaks to my current spiritual expression more than saying a typical mealtime prayer.
As for reminding us of those who are suffering - and our call to do justice toward these people in our midst - I haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer that can be addressed in a mealtime space, especially with a toddler! For now, I am trying to embrace the idea of the mystics - that our lives are living prayers, and all we do is in service to God’s presence in the world. I am attempting to infuse this presence into our daily interactions as a family - whether it’s by serving lunch to the elderly, buying food for someone who asks, or furnishing household supplies for a formerly homeless family re-settled in a new home.
These are the types of prayers I want to pray and for now I don’t think “traditional” mealtime prayer helps me get there.