Shall We Say Grace?

A habit in many religions is for people to offer thanks to the Divine before eating.  To express thanksgiving before we begin eating helps us remember our contingency as human beings.  That is, we remember that we are not self-sufficient; we rely on food both to survive and to thrive.

If we define “grace” as divine mercy or compassion, we confront a great truth.  Sharing food is one of the most basic, and yet most profound, ways that humans experience mercy and compassion.  Weddings are often accompanied by a celebratory banquet, even as sharing food is an essential part of mourning in almost every culture.  Milestones along the human journey, such as birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and family reunions aren’t complete without food being shared. 

Although we can eat alone, the healing power of food is released when we share food with others.  Eating together does not just sustain us physically, but nourishes us emotionally and spiritually. 

 Shared food can also lead to a more harmonious world.  In ancient cultures, when alliances were made with neighboring people or when peace was established between former adversaries, the new relationship was cemented by a shared meal.  The same occurs today, whether at a White House reception for visiting foreign dignitaries or in a home when two people who hope to marry invite their parents to meet for the first time.  

Our ancient ancestors knew the same truth that a psychologist has more recently observed, that there is little that is more harmful to people, especially children, than angry words expressed while food is being shared.  No matter how long the prayer is before the meal, if anger is ingested with the food, the taste we will be left with will be bitter.

But the opposite is also true.  Words of love and compassion, expressed while we eat with others, releases a healing power.  When we take in love with food, the taste is sweet.  It is no wonder that we find at the heart of many religions, the love and friendship that the Divine has for humanity being expressed in a sacred meal, a sacrament.  And I love the fact that in some religions, a prominent image of the afterlife is a banquet.  

Shall we say grace?  Yes, but let us remember that grace is more than words uttered before we eat.  One of my favorite theologians, Martin Buber, makes a point that I hope I never forget.  When people are open and transparent with one another, God is present.  

If our hearts are open, grace can be experienced in every morsel, in our every moment of being with others and with the Divine.