Saying grace, the prayer before a meal, is as much a tradition for some families as it is unused in others. Other than catching someone off-guard with the fork halfway to his or her mouth, does the blessing serve a religious purpose? This week's clergy shed light on the significance of the practice.
The Rev. Leslie Duroseau, pastor, Hamptons United Methodist Church, Southampton:
I can't bring to mind a specific verse that tells us to bless the food, but there is the Last Supper, when Jesus blessed the bread, broke it and gave it to his disciples. God blesses us, and everything from him is a blessing. We bless our food in gratitude and adoration. We have an understanding of a God who has made provisions for us and who provides for us. It brings to mind Matthew 6:26 (KJV): Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?
When we today perform the Lord's Supper, it is an execution of our faith to witness and testify to the relationship. It is one that God desires to have with his people. It also shows that our relationship with God is real and tangible.
You strengthen your relationship by being mindful of the blessings you are given, understanding that all things come from him. And, because we don't always take the time to pray during the day, but most of us eat three times a day, this is a good time to pray. So, if you bless your food at each meal, there are at least three times during the day when you are consciously reaffirming and executing your relationship with God. By acknowledging this relationship, you are daily strengthening your faith.
Rabbi Zev Schostak, director of pastoral care, Gurwin Jewish Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Commack:
We are truly blessed to live in an affluent society, where we have a wide selection of foods to choose from: organic, dietetic, natural, processed, fruits and vegetables imported from around the world to name just a few.
I still remember eating only what was in season, or what we preserved ourselves. While those in many other countries still live this way, we are blessed to have a constant supply of foods. Yet the tragedy of today's generation, born into such bounty, is that too often they take their food for granted. In fact, many see their food as an absolute entitlement.
Reciting a blessing for the food we eat acknowledges that we realize our food is a gift from God -- not an entitlement. It is only because most of us don't have the vantage point of the farmer that we take what we eat for granted. Farmers who suffer an endless drought or major infestation realize how dependent they are on God for a successful harvest.
God provides us with nutritious and delicious food choices. When we recite a blessing before eating, we acknowledge that God is the ultimate source of all we eat. We are grateful that we may eat of his bounty, even as we are mindful that in our society there are poor people who do not have adequate nutrition. Our blessing declares that our food, our health and our welfare comes only by the grace of God. There are no entitlements.
Ultimately, blessings, like prayer itself, teach us one of the most important lessons of all: Despite all our high-tech advances, man is not as autonomous as he might like to think. He is still vulnerable and fragile, subject to the vagaries of nature for his very livelihood.
Blessings and prayers teach us about our human limitations and the need to turn to God -- the ultimate source of our existence.
Sister Barbara Regan, Religious of the Cenacle, Ministry Team member, Cenacle Retreat Center, Ronkonkoma:
Actually, Catholics don't bless our food before a meal. In a traditional prayer, "Grace before Meals," we acknowledge God's gift, and ask God to bless us and our food. The word "grace" comes from two Latin words: "gratia" meaning thanks, and "gratus" meaning grateful. "Grace before Meals" is a request for God's blessing and a thank you to God who is so good to us. Meister Eckhart, the medieval mystic, said, "If the only prayer you ever said in your life was thank you, it would be enough."
An Anglican/Episcopalian Grace asks God to bless "Thy gifts to our use and us to thy service." It's a good reminder that eating is not only for our personal nourishment, but so that we can serve God.
Some Catholics pray a spontaneous Grace before meals. In addition to all that's included in the traditional Grace, people might pray for the farmers and cooks who got the meal to our table, or ask God to keep us mindful of people who have little or nothing to eat.
Other spontaneous prayers may ask help in caring for God's gift, the Earth, the physical source of our food.
Does blessing our food strengthen our faith? I don't know. I do know that being grateful to God for such loving bounty and joining God in feeding others certainly does.