Tom Karst, National EditorIn today’s mind-exploding schedule of family activities and eat-on-the-go culture, we are creating more cultural distance from the era when grace was always said before family dinner time.
When we get the No. 3 Value Meal from McDonalds in the drive-through lane, chances are slim that we take the time to give thanks for our “daily bread.”
The practice is perhaps most observed for all Americans at Thanksgiving dinner, when a lengthy grace over the food is not only endured but happily expected.
Yet the practiced habit of bowed head and giving voice to the sentiment to “bless this food” still persists for many of us, even if our nests are empty and we share a meal with only our spouse — or even dine alone.
I was intrigued when I was offered a chance to obtain a review copy of “Bless This Food: Ancient and Contemporary Graces from around the World,” written by Adrian Butash and published by New World Library.
The 189-page book features food blessings through the ages and across people groups and continents.
“Sharing food is the most universal cultural experience,” the author writes. “Expressing thanks for food was humankind’s first act of worship, for food is the gift of life from above. In every culture there are sacred beliefs or divine commandments that require honoring the giver of life — God or the divine principle — through acknowledging the sacred gift of food.”
Butash says: “The occasional gathering for prayer, no matter how brief, keeps the heart and mind in touch with the most fundamental joys: belonging.”
The book looks at the origin of grace through the lenses of the world great religions, from Jewish and Christian sacred texts to the traditions practiced by Sumerians, Hindus, Muslims, Chinese, Japanese and American Indians.
The author compiled 150 mealtime blessings, in addition to the short prayer “bless this food” in nineteen languages. The blessings are arranged in chronological order, from a Hindu blessing dated to 1,500 B.C. to selections from the 20th century.
The author often provides several paragraphs of context and background for the prayers.
Keep in mind that if your purpose is to find your own family’s American prayer recorded in this book, you likely will be disappointed, at least based on my experience.
Growing up in my family and parenting our own kids, the several graces we repeated most often were not accounted for.
Blessings for food that started with “Come Lord Jesus,” or “God is great,” or “For food and health” were missing from the compilation.
Missing also was a passage from Psalm 145 my grandfather would often recite for table grace: “The eyes of all wait upon thee; and thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing.”
“Grace” is most meaningful and honestly attractive when it takes free form expression, a chance to give voice to a specific thought or burden that needs expressed, even if the prayer forgets to mention the food.
The next time you are gathered for a general session breakfast at an industry trade show and someone stands before the podium for an invocation or a blessing before the meal, don’t think of the exercise as anachronistic or a throwback to your grandfather’s produce association.
“Bless this food,” or some variation, has been invoked for thousands of years.
For those who produce the wheat that makes the bread and the growers who pack the lettuce that makes the salad, asking for a blessing for the food and the hands that prepared it will never be a worthless gesture.
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