Gathering around one table to share food and conversation can bind people together. Whether it is a family, a potluck group, or a business luncheon, for at least a brief period of time, the people around the table share a common obligation to be gracious, display appropriate manners and consideration, and even display at least a superficial interest in one another. Depending on the circumstances, a mealtime can be a time of great intimacy, or merely polite indifference. Sadly it can also be a time of tension and division if the conversation gets hotter than the food.
With a unitive purpose in mind, sharing a meal becomes the heart of family life. Everywhere you turn someone is extolling the value of families eating dinner together. We do it as much as we possibly can, and will bend schedules and timing rather than forfeit this significant sharing time. When we gather for a meal, we do more than eat and talk together. We also give thanks.
There are lots of standard prayers families can learn to recite for dinnertime grace. In some families the father or mother always speaks for everyone in blessing the food. Singing a blessing is also a good way to give thanks. Another option is taking turns giving thanks for the meal. We have done all of these things at one time or another, but for more than a decade we have settled into a specific tradition. My husband begins with leading everyone in the Sign of the Cross. Then he chooses one individual to start the round of thanksgivings. As we go around the table taking turns, everyone is required to come up with at least one thing that they are thankful for, whether it is for that day or just a general thanks. Once everyone has voiced an acceptable thanks, we wrap up our blessing of the meal with the standard prayer, “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from your bounty, through Christ Our Lord, Amen,” and close with the Sign of the Cross.
Giving thanks for something every mealtime didn’t start out perfectly. When our daughter was a preschooler she would often thank the Lord for her nice, pink day. We didn’t usually press her any further on that, since her expression of thanks was sincere and cheerful. However, sometimes a child would get lazy and thoughtlessly give thanks for “a good day” several days in a row. When it seemed to be becoming habitual, Dad usually piped up and asked for something more specific. “I can’t think of anything,” was never accepted as an excuse. If he was met with a less than cooperative attitude, he would make some suggestions. “Can you breathe? Can you see? Are you in good health?”
With practice and thoughtfulness, everyone got better at coming up with something that they clearly recognized as a blessing they enjoyed that day or over a period of time. Some typical thanksgivings that pop up over and over again are for good health, peace in our country, being able to shop at a grocery store that is stocked well with what we need. We thank the Lord for the gifts of each other, whether we are a brother thankful for other brothers, or a wife thankful for a faithful husband. We express our gratitude for the wonderful job my husband has that provides for us so well. The countless things that we could so easily take for granted often come to mind as we go around taking turns.
In the beginning everyone was glad to be off the hook with one thing they could offer their gratitude for. As our children got older, and miracle of miracles, even appreciative of things they had taken for granted earlier, their thanksgivings got more numerous. It is not unusual for our adult children to now list briefly two, three, maybe even four things that they recognized as blessings for them that day: a friend’s phone call, a good grade on a test, protection from an accident, the gift of faith.
Developing an attitude of gratitude can do so much to focus our priorities in times of uncertainty. Once, quite unexpectedly, my husband gave thanks for the new job he knew was out there waiting for him to find. It was the first anyone of us knew that he had lost his current employment that day. Startling as the announcement was, given in the form of a thanksgiving helped us all to be reassured that our provider was ready to sniff out that gem of a job until it was discovered. It helped me to immediately take up that air of confidence he had, so that our children were not burdened with witnessing their parents’ anxiety. I knew we would be discussing the implications of this development in private later.
When the custom of giving thanks first began, it was clear that some individuals were just picking the first thing that came to mind and throwing that out. Thanking the Lord for some trial that we had to endure during the day has its merits, but only if the trial was endured with patience and fortitude. Someone who thanks the Lord for something they grumped about all day, and are continuing to grump about, making everyone around them miserable, is not sincerely thankful, but using the moment to vent their continuing lack of graciousness. We learned to spot these phony thanksgivings and disqualify them at once. Sometimes dinner was delayed for a minute while we all waited for the disgruntled family member to choke out some legitimate, usually enormously obvious, thing worthy of their acknowledged thanks. No one was ever in a bad enough mood to be excused from this obligation, even if all they could manage was “I’m glad I can see.”
Life has so many bumps, bruises, disappointments, and seemingly wrong turns that throw us for a loop. Remembering to give thanks is like the long pole the tightrope walker uses to cross the high wire. It balances us when things are tricky. It puts the hardships in perspective and reduces their importance in the face of salvation, loving relationships, and the steady provision of life’s necessities. When our health is gone, we can be thankful that we had good health enough of our life to know what it is. When our relationships sour, we can be thankful that God does not ever desert us or give up on us. When even our basic necessities are in peril, we can thank God that his salvation is our refuge in times of trouble. A steady diet of giving thanks will keep our attitudes healthy when the challenges seem unbearable. Thank God for that, and when you’re done saying grace, please pass the gratitude.