I didn’t grow up saying grace over food, not even in the old days when my family went to church together. Well, we memorized the standard Catholic grace-before-meals, but we never said it consistently. I learned a few graces, too, in Girl Scouts, upbeat little songs that seemed silly compared to the stern grandeur of the Catholic prayer. In either context, not only did the graces said not penetrate my heart, but they never even shaped my mind, never became one of those good habits moms drill into you like buckling your seat belt or brushing your teeth.
My conversion at age 18 didn’t sell me on grace either; as I wrote at the time, I thought “churches and ceremony” gave people “a false sense of security.” Even through college, I scorned most spiritual disciplines, didn’t attend church regularly, didn’t pray or read the Bible. Though I called myself a Christian, I could almost forget about my faith for days at a time. I certainly didn’t find my three square meals a day occasion to remember it. Grace seemed too superstitious, inorganic, almost insincere.
Only within the last few years have I come to see the value of this ritual. Strange, because food and shared meals have always been core symbols of the faith for me. The transition from hunger to fullness recalls the Beatitudes. Sharing a meal with loved ones and guests echoes the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples and his instructions to remember him “whenever you do this.” Scripture actually invites us to “taste and see the goodness of God,” like it’s a feast we can sink our teeth into, like it’s tempting us to take that first bite. And I’ve always loved feeding people, expressing my love through a loaf of pumpkin bread or pizza from scratch, my little way of echoing the love of God in the concrete.
We all need food. Sharing food fosters friendship. Giving food shows love. I understood all of this without words.
But now I know that words are valuable too.
I started to learn this in my junior year of college, when I was part of a dinner co-op with six friends. We’d all trade off making dinner in pairs five times a week, then fend for ourselves on Fridays and Saturdays. On the whole, it worked well, and we all learned a lot about cooking (my tablemates patiently bore with me through some memorable botched meals, including mouth-scorching chili and a truly disastrous first batch of pizza).
My friends Katrina and Anna are wonderful cooks and hostesses, and night after night when it was their turn, they’d set the table meticulously, set out some steaming, succulent dish plated beautifully… and ask us to wait. Then Katrina would read out loud a poem she’d selected beforehand, maybe something by Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry, and we’d chew the words over, looking around at each other’s faces. When the poem was over, we’d take a breath before digging in, and the food would somehow taste even better for the ritual.
They graduated and left, and I began tucking into meals without pausing again. It took me years to figure out that I missed it, the moment of silence and the carefully chosen words, to make a meal something more. So I started taking a breath, taking a moment to pause thankfully before sating my hunger, and in the act of doing it, I’ve realized what grace really means.
Why is it called grace? Because the definition of “grace” is “a gift I don’t deserve,” and I don’t deserve my food. Sure, more often than not I’m the one who cooked it, bought it at the supermarket or the farmer’s market. But could I feed myself entirely on my own? Absolutely not. By the time my food reaches my lips, so much energy has already gone into it that my own act of cooking seems like nothing.
Could I make meals like I do if I had to grow my own wheat and grind my own flour and make my own pasta? My lifestyle wouldn’t allow it. Could I enjoy the bounty of foods and the variety of ingredients and cuisines I do without the help of others? No. These things have nothing to do with my merit; they’re a gift, and they should inspire my gratitude. So grace is a way of remembering where my food comes from and a way of honoring those whose hard work went into its making.
And even if I did grow my own vegetables and mill my own flour, would I not be dependent, as all farmers are, on temperature and rainfall and other earthly processes that nourish seeds and make them come alive? Could I ever truly say I made my food myself when its growth depended on so many things beyond my control? Agriculture itself is a gift. The security it provides us with is surely a gift, since I doubt I’d do better at hunting deer and gathering berries than I would at farming. In a sense, my entire existence is a gift which the gift of food makes possible.
Sharing food with others I love is also completely undeserved. It’s a wild blessing that I’m alive, that they’re alive, and that we’re together. It’s worthy of celebration, just like the meal Jesus shared with his friends. It’s a holy moment every time, and the ritual of saying grace reminds me I’m on sacred ground.
Honestly, a few words and a pause before a meal don’t even do all of this justice. But it helps me to keep it more in mind, to pause my whirling brain for a moment and try to comprehend the degree to which I need to be thankful. And then, like the energy in my food fuels my actions for the day, that moment of thankfulness can fuel the sharing of my blessings with those around me, can help me view my life as bread to be broken, a little at a time, meal by meal.