Pastoral Perspectives

A Meditation on Saying Grace

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
—Psalm 107:1

Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts,
which we are about to receive from Thy bounty.
Through Christ, our Lord.
—Traditional meal prayer

Sometimes after I say grace for a meal, I ask myself if I really meant what I prayed. In our context, “saying grace” refers to making a short prayer just before a meal. The term “saying grace” comes from the Latin gratiarum actio, which literally means “act of thanks.” So, to say grace would mean giving thanks to God for the meal which he has provided. Upon reflection, I often find my act of saying grace rather perfunctory. While words of thanksgiving might flow from my lips, I seem to lack any true gratefulness to God for his provision. In fact, sometimes after saying grace I proceed to complain about the food! Recalling the story of Israel journeying to Canaan from Egypt, I find myself like the faithless Israelites who grumbled to God about how always eating manna from heaven is boring.

Perhaps one reason for my lack of gratitude might be due to my distance from the work of obtaining the constituent elements of my meal. Being an urbanite, I do not see the hard work growing and harvesting the rice that ends up on my plate, nor know how that process is precarious and fraught with difficulties. In agriculture, the harvest is very much dependent on elements beyond the farmer’s control: if there is bad weather or blight, then crops may be destroyed, resulting in a poor harvest. Therefore, those whose lives are more immediate to agriculture work will feel a greater sense of gratitude for the food on their table.

In fact, from simple meal prayers to elaborate rituals, ancient humans everywhere have always expressed some kind of thanksgiving for food because food did not come easy for them. The more the process of putting food on table is a matter of life and death, the more grateful one will be. However, I am so far removed from that process that I hardly think about it at all. To get a bag of rice all I have to do is to stroll into a supermarket to purchase it or I can simply order it online and get it delivered to my doorstep. The abundance and convenience makes it easy to take the food on my plate for granted.

A strong sense of entitlement might be another reason why I lack gratitude for the food on my table. Writing on the practice of expressing gratitude, the English scientist and author Rupert Sheldrake suggested that a lack gratitude for the food on our table is because we are all part of the consumer culture, and we feel that “[we] have a legally enforceable right to expect products or services [we] have paid for and to complain when [we] do not receive what [we] expect.” As consumers, we believe we have the right to anything as long as we have the money to pay for it. As long as I have the money and the supermarket has rice, I feel that I have the right to acquire them. This attitude chokes our gratitude to God for the meal he has put on our table.

Perhaps it will take an experience of starvation to shake me out of such a mentality! Sheldrake believes that encountering a disaster would make us more grateful for the things we have: “Disasters change our perspective. … If there is a long power outage or a strike that prevents goods from being delivered to our shops, so that we cannot get food supplies, many of us are grateful when our supplies are restored.” Experiencing a disruption to that ease of putting food on table may stop me from taking it granted.

Sheldrake goes on to write that

As soon as we stop taking almost everything for granted, we begin to realize that we can be grateful for almost everything. We only exist because our ancestors survived and reproduced successfully, right back to the origin of life. As babies, we were totally dependent on other people for our survival. And simply to have survived to the age we are today took the support of hundreds, thousands, even millions of other people: farmers, teachers, builders, electricians, plumbers, doctors, nurses, dentists, grocers… Then all of us are here only because our planet exists, and life on earth has evolved over billions of years to give us this living planet on which we totally depend.

In other words, when we pause to reflect on how we are still alive right now, we begin to realise how much our existences depend on a complex web of relations in creation, not just on our planet but in the larger cosmos as well. When I pause to ponder about how food ends up on my plate, I see that it is not there just because I paid for it. Rather, it is there because of a constellation of factors beyond my control, and recognising this helps me not to take it for granted but to thank God who is the source of all good things and arranges the cosmos to sustain my life.

While we recognise that it is God who graciously provides us with food, there is something more profound to this provision. Food is not given to us merely for our survival or, more often in our day, for our hedonistic indulgence (“eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”). Instead, the ultimate reason why God generously provides us with food from his bountiful creation is so that by it we may have communion with him. After all, a garden abounding with gustatory delights is where God communed with Adam and Eve. According to Eastern Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, “All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man.”

This communion is realised when we acknowledge in gratitude God’s provision. As humans, we need to eat and drink to keep alive, and God provides for our principal need through creation. Therefore, when we see food on the table, we ought to see it as God’s grace to us: what is seemingly mundane is in fact sacramental. The call of humanity is then to humbly receive from him, and in return render thanks and praise. In our thanksgiving for food, the flow of grace from God to us is reciprocated by the flow of gratitude from us to God. This double movement of God giving and we receiving, and we giving and God receiving, is like the water cycle we read of in our science textbooks. Just as the water cycle is necessary for sustaining life on earth, the double movement sustains the kind of life God intends for us. It is in the gratiarum actio (act of thanks) that, in the words of Schmemann, “transforms [our] life, the one that [we receive] from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him.”

Preacher Png Eng Keat

January 3, 2021