■ Michael Falgout / Contributed
It was our oldest son who first brought it to my attention. “Why do we say, ‘Thank you, seed,’ before we eat dinner?” The simple answer is: we don’t. But, when our youngest says grace before our evening meal, that is what it sounds like. I honestly don’t know who was the first among us to pray, “Thank you, Father. Thank you for this day. Thank you for this food that we have received. Amen.” But, somehow, it stuck, and was passed down from brother to sister until the last part was shortened to: “Thank you f’th’s day. Thank you f’th’s…ceiv’d (sounds like: seed). Amen.” That’s what can happen to your prayers, I guess, when you’re kind of in a hurry.
Lots of families say grace in lots of different ways. Some say it before they eat; some say it after. Some do both. Some save that kind of thing for special guests or occasions. One of my childhood friends thought our family was strange to pray out loud in restaurants. On the other hand, I thought he was a little strange to cross his heart with his hands. Today, I’m not so quick to say there’s a right or wrong way to do it, but I feel more strongly than ever that saying grace is a profoundly good and healthy thing for us to do.
Saying grace is a nearly universal, ancient human custom with deep biblical and historical roots. But, in the end, it is all about expressing gratitude, or thanksgiving. And, few things are more important for our spiritual and personal well-being. Saint Paul wrote in no uncertain terms, “Give thanks in every circumstance, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Why is it so important to practice gratitude so often? In the words of the great American playwright and novelist, Thornton Wilder, “we can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” The goal of the practice of thanksgiving is continual gratitude, to be fully alive for every moment of our lives.
Some of the benefits of practicing gratitude are intangible. But, studies have shown that measurable benefits can also accrue from such practice. Better health, longer sleep, improved self-esteem, increased empathy and even mental strength are among the “seven scientifically proven benefits of gratitude” Amy Morin finds (2015). If there is a right way of saying grace, I suppose it would be gratefully: or, in such a way as contributes to our personal growth and social well-being in clearly observable ways today.
If there is a wrong way of saying grace, I suppose it would be carelessly or forced: without heart, thought, purpose, or intention in or under the act. And, in this respect, I should probably admit, “I am the chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). I know from plenty of personal experience that saying grace can become a perfunctory exercise, a lazy, forgettable ritual that only seems to get in the way of the celebration of divine and created goodness. There’s no use in trying to force gratitude from ourselves or others. Sometimes, we need to be reminded again of why we do what we do. But one thing’s for sure: you have to feel free to give thanks authentically.
I consider myself unusually fortunate that I am reminded and feel free to say grace often. The first Sunday in October, many churches will celebrate an annual event called “World Communion Sunday.” It’s a day of the year where a great number of people of faith from all over the world intentionally gather around tables to say grace and partake in Eucharist together (which comes from the Greek word for “thanksgiving”). I’m just wide-eyed and optimistic enough to think that kind of thing does make a difference in this world. But, I also believe in the cumulative effect of many smaller acts of gratitude that take place in your home and mine: weekly habits, daily rituals, and family holidays like Thanksgiving.
So, who wants to say grace? And, why don’t we take it more seriously? Let me encourage you to reconsider how you practice and progress in gratitude. I like to think it’s not something we have to do so much as it’s something we get to do. And, in the end, I think it may be one of the most important of all the things we do.