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Saying grace: How a moment of thanks, religious or not, adds meaning to our meals

by The Washington Post | November 19, 2021 at 10:00 p.m.
Multi-ethnic family and friends pray during Thanksgiving dinner. Close-up of hands in foreground.

Brett Levanto and his family had never said grace before meals, not regularly, anyway. But what began as a temporary challenge transformed them in small ways.

This year, his daughter decided to start saying grace before dinner during Lent, and he and his wife were encouraging, thinking it would be a nice thing to try out. He was surprised at the effects it had.

"It's just been lovely. I really dig the way it creates a structure," says Levanto, 38, who lives in Alexandria, Va., and works for a small lobbying and law firm. "Everyone has to get to the table and be together and not be distracted. We focus on where we are."

The family sits, holds hands, and takes turns saying a free-form grace. They might say what they're thankful for, or speak about a sick friend who is in their thoughts. The parents aren't prescriptive about what a proper grace is supposed to sound like, he says. "If my son's heart is telling him to thank God for mac and cheese, well, thank God for mac and cheese!"

They all say "amen," and then dinner is off and running. Although the grace might take less than a minute, it sets a crucial tone. "It creates a grounding feeling - a moment of stillness," he says. "I feel like our dinners at home are much better now - like, 'Now we are together, and this is what we're doing.' I mean, I'm not going to say we have Rockwellian dinners or anything."

That's a reference to painter Norman Rockwell, of course, whose images of wholesome middle-American dining include the iconic "Saying Grace," painted for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1951. It depicts a young boy and an older woman bowing their heads in a crowded diner, as other patrons, seemingly engaged in the more familiar rituals of modern life - smoking or reading the newspaper - look on. At the time, it might have felt to many Americans that this tradition was fading.

But it hasn't. The state of grace in contemporary America is hard to quantify, though the practice remains prevalent: Almost half of all Americans said they regularly took a moment before meals to give thanks, according to a 2017 poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

This Thanksgiving, it's likely to be heard at tables around the country. The very purpose of the holiday, after all, is to express gratitude. Many families who don't typically pray before meals will do so, and those that do might expand the ritual. Kenneth Minkema, executive editor of the Jonathan Edwards Center at the Yale Divinity School, notes that the holiday's roots trace back to the American colonists, who celebrated days of giving thanks for their bounty in the fall, and then in spring, they marked days of atonement when they fasted and reflected on their sins. "These days, we're mostly only doing the fun part," he says.

The act of saying grace - broadly defined as a moment before a meal in which people give thanks - seems to be as varied as recipes for stuffing. The words people utter may be secular or religious, perhaps blended from various traditions. They could be familiar phrases repeated over and over, or invented on the spot. People create games to get their children involved. They say grace over fast-food burritos and elaborate holiday meals.

For Pat Cuadros, the words are always the same: The Catholic grace that begins "Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts ..." has always been the start to her meals. The setting varies, though. She has said those words - sometimes to herself, silently, or aloud when she's with other observant friends - in Chipotles, in airplanes, and in restaurants. She will say them at Thanksgiving dinner this year with her mother and two brothers.

If she were dining with a new friend, she'd ask if it was OK to take a moment to pray silently before they ate. "Everyone has always been OK with it," says Cuadros, a 34-year-old writer and editor for the Department of Agriculture who lives outside of Fairfax, Va. "It can be a conversation starter. But in college, I always had a backup plan - I would think, 'If it's going to be really awkward, I can pray in the car ahead of time.'"

Cuadros says the ritual feels automated in some ways - after all, she has repeated the same words thousands of times. Still, she always finds meaning in them, and relies on the practice to remind her of her family and values.

"It doesn't ever lose meaning because I am truly grateful, and I know the moment is going to fortify me and reinvigorate me for the day," she says. "Growing up in a single-parent home, you really do appreciate every meal."

To Minkema at the Yale Divinity School, grace serves several purposes. Reciting the same words together or participating in a regular ritual creates a feeling of connection with those around us, he says. "It serves to strengthen and confirm the bond of family or community," he says. "It helps to acknowledge that we are one." And across religions, it is also an acknowledgment of the source of the food before you. "There is the creator/God but also other people, the earth, and the moral responsibilities that go along with that," he says. "It also has a way of pulling you inward and reminding you of those responsibilities."

M.J. Ryan, whose books on gratitude include "A Grateful Heart: Daily Blessings for the Evening Meals from Buddha to the Beatles," says that whether the motivation is religious or secular, taking a moment to truly feel gratitude can affect one's life long after the dishes are cleared. The human brain is hardwired to focus on the negative, she notes. That's a survival mechanism that helps us spot danger or problems. (Our ancestors found it was far better to notice that lightning storm on the horizon than the lovely blue skies above.) "Taking in the good is a counterbalance to that negativity bias we have in our brains," she says.

She recommends that people regularly find time to practice gratitude, and the beginning of a meal is a natural place to start. "It's a built-in moment," she says. "The food is an objective thing to look at that we have and can be grateful for."

People who routinely say grace do so for reasons both spiritual and practical.

Terrence Geary, 50, a food-systems consultant and real estate professional in Newport, R.I., didn't usually say grace at home with his wife and their young son. But his son recently stumbled on a pre-meal meditation track on his wife's phone, and became entranced with it. At first, Geary - who is an avowed food lover - says he found himself impatient as he watched his piping-hot rigatoni grow cold while the family followed the instructions to appreciate the smells and the colors of the dishes before digging in.

But he came around, he says, once he realized how the repeated ritual offered his son structure and stability - something that has been in short supply in these turbulent times. "We moved around a little in the last year and a half," Geary said. "So anything we can do to make him feel at home and feel grounded, like life is getting back to normal, is a good thing."

A pre-meal ritual can offer moments of both levity and seriousness.

When Anna Saufferer's extended family gathers - and they do, a lot, for birthdays and holidays, even the minor ones - the tradition is to do a pre-meal "nose goes" game. The last person to touch their nose is the one to say the blessing.

"Someone is always too busy chatting or drinking their wine to notice," she says. "Then some of the aunts and uncles might give a long-winded one, or the kids might go, 'God's neat, let's eat!' It's a fun way to keep everyone on their toes and to make it not just the parents' responsibility."

Saufferer, a 25-year-old public-relations manager in Seattle who attends a nondenominational Christian church, usually says a short, traditional grace when dining with her immediate family: "Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and may these gifts to us be blessed," which is a variation on a common Christian prayer thought to have Lutheran roots. Other relatives say their own graces in their homes, too. But she says adding the game when they all get together for meals creates a special feeling of togetherness, which they haven't been able to enjoy in the last year and half, when the pandemic has made big gatherings impossible. "I'm excited to get back to family," she says of the upcoming holiday celebrations. "And no matter what, there are small blessings and gifts that we can turn to, and [saying grace] helps us get our mind and hearts ready."

Dinesh Rathi, a freelance translator from Haymarket, Va., always recites the same mantra before meals. He says it in Sanskrit, with his eyes closed, and the words include the plea: "Let there be peace in me; Let there be peace in my environment; Let there be peace in the forces that act on me."

Rathi, 52, says it connects him to his spiritual master, the swami Shivom Tirth Mahara, who passed away in 2008, and of his teachings. And it serves as a daily reminder, he says, to consider how interconnected humans are. "No matter what is going on, I try to reflect on the day," he says. "I think about what I might have done, and I hope I will not make the same mistake tomorrow. We all need to be compassionate and tolerant of each other in this world."

Grace can even change people's experience of a meal. Levanto recalled that recently, he was alone with his son and daughter, scrounging up a dinner of leftovers for them. He had eaten at work, and typically, he says, he would have put food on the table and then gone off to do a little more work or catch up on news on his phone. Instead, he joined them in saying grace, and then stayed to talk to them as they ate. "In the before times, I would have just slapped the food down," he says. "But I had the impetus to sit, so I chatted with them and had varying degrees of success in asking them about their days."

That kind of intentional slowing down is what saying grace is all about, says Tim O'Malley, the academic director for Notre Dame's Center for Liturgy. "If you think about the modern household, it's efficient - we get together, we eat, we run," he says. "Saying grace is a note of slowing down." And he thinks that as we become more distant from the source of our food, whether that is the life of the animal we are eating or the hands of the people who picked the produce, we might forget to be thankful for them. "It might be the most damning thing in modern culture, that receiving without gratitude," he says. Saying grace, though, "is medicine to the ingratitude that we can develop."

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