By Frank Wessling
It’s a good guess that more Catholics pray before meals than at any other time outside of Mass.
We learn that mealtime prayer, “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts …,” as children and repeat it ritually around the family table. Some of us use it quietly before restaurant meals and it often becomes the community conclusion to a leader’s meal prayer at Catholic gatherings of various kinds.
We should appreciate this little habit more than we do. It marks us as people able to be at peace, able to be good neighbors, able to be family and friends with the world.
Think about it: a grateful heart is whole, inviting, welcoming, full of peace. At that moment of gratitude we are most in tune with the deep faith and hope that drives all of life.
When we pause to accept turkey and cranberries at home, or a cup of soup, a bowl of oatmeal, a bologna sandwich, a handful of rice, a military field meal — whatever the food may be and wherever we take it, prayer of thanks is the appropriate human response. It says we know ourselves to be more than our stomachs, we know life to be more than mere survival.
Most of all, we know ourselves as receivers of goodness and love overflowing. We let ourselves feel a touch of the mystery that saves. And it all starts with taking time for thanks.
President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation that set Thanksgiving Day on November’s last Thursday makes good meditation as we approach the holiday. For Lincoln, a prayer of thanks for blessings was especially important in the midst of the Civil War. For us in 2009 it has particular meaning as we continue toward the ninth year of grinding war on a ghostly enemy named “terrorism.”
As he set “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father” for good harvests and the everyday benefits of family and civic life, Lincoln asked citizens “that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the imposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”
The now quaint formalities of 19th century English aside, there is an entire lesson on how to pray in those words.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, is another way of thanksgiving that deserves more attention. He locates blessing where the ego least expects it: in being open, being receptive, being grateful, in seeing life as all gift.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” for they are able to receive all divine riches.
“Blessed are the meek,” for they are able to appreciate everything and everyone.
“Blessed are the pure of heart,” for they have perfect vision of goodness.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” for they do the work of God.
Our grace before the meal of Thanksgiving Day may be a heartfelt spontaneous prayer of gratitude or the simple words we learned as children or a combination. How we express it is secondary to the spirit of thanks itself.
Blessed are we at those moments, for the breath of God is in us.