In this six part series our non-religious Interact Blogger Sam Toller delves deeper into the major world religions and discusses specific aspects within each of these faiths that he personally admires. This week: Christianity.
Christmas is a festive period of rest, good food, family and presents for many. The good spirit within the community, as well as the Christmas lights and music, are an indispensable respite from the dreadful weather and the end of the beginning of another academic year. However, the Christian origins of the festivities are often forgotten, along with the less fortunate for whom Christmas is a reminder of better times. With these in mind, I decided to explore the Christian practice of ‘saying Grace’ and it’s meaning to the religious and non-religious alike.
Internet research led me to several different conclusions as to the meaning of the prayer of grace, so I arranged a meeting with Lucy Berry, a Minister in the United Reformed Church who lives locally to me. She started off our conversation by telling me that saying grace is not unique to Christianity; it occurs in the Jewish faith, as Birkat Hamazon, which is a set of prayers said after eating a meal that includes bread. Muslims and Hindus also have their own variations on thanking their God(s) before, and sometimes after, eating.
I explained the confusing conclusion of my internet research, and asked for a simple definition. She told me that Grace is essentially ‘Thanking God for the food, the people around the table and the shelter above our heads’. She told me that saying Grace is what’s known as ‘observance’. This means that it’s something that’s owed to God, rather than a prayer said now and again to show your appreciation.
At the end of our discussion, Lucy suggested that I should try saying grace, to see how it felt and to give me a better insight into what I was writing about. I thought it was a brilliant idea, however as an atheist I was skeptical as to how I would react. I was reassured when she joked (with a certain level of sincerity) that no one really knew exactly who they were praying to. She explained that the main point was that the prayer was humble, that I was genuinely thankful and showing my appreciation, and that I really ‘send it somewhere’.
I returned home to the smell of dinner. I was ravenous, and the prospect of food erased my mind of the conversation I had just had. On my way to the oven, I stole a fish finger from my sister. It was only when I reached into the grill that I realized how hypocritical I had just been. My sister asked if there were any fish fingers left; in an attempt to redeem myself, I gave her one of mine. As I sat down to eat, I explained that I had ‘homework’ to do before the meal. Belly rumbling, I sat down in front of my plate, and closed my eyes. I realized that I had no clue who or what I was trying to communicate with. After considering my own spirituality and its possible manifestations, I remembered what Lucy had said about the indifference of who I was praying to, as long as I sent it somewhere.
I had no particular deity in mind; but as I said my thanks for the food in front of me, the shelter above my head, and the company I kept (especially my parents, who had worked hard for both the food and the shelter), I felt a greater appreciation for everything around me. It was liberating to forget about the food in front of me, and take the time to show my gratitude for the things that are important to me, and which I often take for granted.
My mother started calling me “life of pi” and asked mockingly if I was going to become multi-religious. I ignored her, and instead of retorting, said thanks for my mothers dry but brilliant sense of humour. I considered the people in third world countries, who were saying grace with as much (if not more) focus and appreciation than I was, for a dinner that was probably a lot more modest than my own. And in the seconds before I opened my eyes, I felt myself becoming ‘bigger’, and a feeling of calm washed over my body. I don’t know whether it was a deeper feeling of appreciation manifesting itself; whether I was subconsciously inventing a satisfactory ending to my first prayer of grace; or whether I had successfully sent my message of thanks to whoever, or whatever I had been thanking.
Although I suggest trying it at least once, (if anything to discover more about your own spirituality and to recognize what you take for granted), I know that a lot of people, like my mother, find it difficult to appreciate thanking a deity who sometimes works incongruously, and who may not even exist. But I do think that nearly everyone (myself top of the list) takes their way of life for granted. Whether it’s the people around us; our easy access to food, water, education and healthcare; or our often superfluous consumerism, the least we could do is be more grateful for it. Whether we’re thinking of a faith, a person, or an incomprehensible combination of spiritual ideas, the main aim when we show our appreciation is, as Lucy said, that we’re humble, genuine, and we send it somewhere. Even if that ‘somewhere’ is to the person at the other end of the table.