So a student I know, Brendan, writes on his tumblr today:
It’s very rare to see a group of friends saying grace before a meal at a restaurant (even my own youth group is guilty of not praying before a meal when we go out to eat). We are too often afraid to reveal the vulnerable parts of ourselves, especially something like faith that we define our entire lives around. We fear judgement, or the awkwardness that may accompany the situation of reaching out to someone in prayer. I am a huge victim of that, I almost never reach out to people in prayer out of some irrational fear of a hostile reaction. I always am confused over where this fear comes from, I have never actually experienced or witnessed a hostile reaction to an invitation to prayer.
My wife and I eat out often and we always say grace. We recently ate with our friend the recently ordained Fr. Tom Gibbons, CSP and again with Sr. Michelle L’Allier, a Franciscan sister from Minnesota. We said grace at the diner and the restaurant openly.
But is saying grace only an experience for the times we eat with religious folks? Would we be comfortable saying grace with an agnostic or atheistic friend or companion? At our secular university, a colleague took me to task for offering a grace at our campus ministry association’s luncheon which several of the university officials are invited to and attend.
My reaction: “If you think they didn’t expect us to pray before a meal in which a bunch of ministers were gathered then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Besides, I kept it interfaith.
Friend: “You said ‘Lord.”"
Friend: “Well that has a certain religious connotation to it.”
Me: I give up. I’m a jerk for praying, I guess. I’m sure everyone was extremely offended.”
Sarcasm will get you everywhere.
But the truth is that many people are very skittish about public prayer. They are so afraid that someone is going to be upset with their prayer. Surprisingly, I told a friend who is an atheist that I would keep him in my prayers and he replied kindly, “I’ll take all good thoughts and wishes coming my way, thanks!”
Perhaps the reason we’re so skittish about prayer says more about us than it does about God or even about the beliefs of others that we assume we might offend?
The problem I think is that we don’t want to seem “showy” about our faith, thinking we’re putting it in the faces of those who don’t pray at meals or who don’t pray at all. I can see some going over the top with a public grace and end up making a spectacle out of prayer rather than providing a moment of grace where all around us is holy. It’s almost as if to say, “Hey you heathens at the table next to us—you might want to think about praying right now.”
And there are some who probably do pray for that reason and are boisterous about that fact. And that saddens me, because we can turn hearts in gentler ways simply by being the religious people that we are without much fanfare. How many times have we been emboldened by the prayers of others? Were they overly dramatic? Probably not.
I also think there’s a value to a more private, yet public grace before meals. Often when I’m in a mixed religious crowd I will make the sign of the cross before my meal and simply pray privately and when done I resume the gastronomic affair. Others know what I’m doing and don’t much care one way or the other. I’m not trying to make someone uncomfortable and most of the time I goes relatively unnoticed.
And to be honest, I don’t always say grace. Meals often aren’t the most prayer-filled time in my day and I often find several other grace-filled moments of the day where my cup runs over more with gratitude than with table wine at dinner. So I may be at a lunch and forget or am mired in conversation with another and we just start eating.
Here’s what I really hate though. I was once at lunch with a colleague and our appetizers came and I began to eat as we continued the conversation we were engaged with. At some point, my friend awkwardly paused while I was in mid-bite and made the sign of the cross, as if to say “Well, if you’re not going to pray, I’m going to.” He didn’t invite me into his experience, he just chose to purposefully make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were terrible for not remembering to say grace, or simply not choosing to. He could’ve asked me if I wanted to join him in grace and then I would’ve been glad to pray with him. It’s the difference between a public prayer necessarily being communal and a private prayer not needing to be as demonstrative.
Prayer is not an exercise in “I’ll show YOU how holy I am.”
And often our prayer is a reminder…during Lent we fast from food but not from prayer. Are we less holy when we don’t partake in a meal because we don’t engage with grace? Nonsense! We realize that we fast because we have the opportunity to do so, and how many others in the world would love to be able to abstain from meat, much less an entire meal. Most people in the world get only a bit of food once a day and many don’t have access to clean water. When we fast, do we consider that? How about when we say grace?
Or do we just enter into a litany of “Isn’t God great for giving us food?” If we do so, might we be more than forgetful of the poor, whom God never forgets?
One of my colleagues used to be quite uncomfortable with public graces. Another was incredibly comfortable with it and would take the lead in saying it when we’d collectively lunch or dinner out. Some time ago, the colleague who was uncomfortable with public prayer took me to dinner as a gift. Our food came and he dug in immediately but then looked up at me and said, “I said a private grace!”
I chuckled and replied that I had done the same, knowing his discomfort well ahead of time.
And perhaps this is a measure of who we are as a people often disconnected from where God is in our lives. Some are more communal or evangelical in their prayer styles while others are more private, contemplative or intimate.
Whatever the case, the good news is that we can be reminded of God and of others in all things. A simple meal, good conversation, mindfulness and open to the grace that God offers us in all things…
Not just simply the food we ingest.