It was senior year of high school and my friend was in a panic. This time the cause for stress was that she had been asked to lead the blessing at our National Honor Society dinner. I can’t remember whether she herself was a church-goer, but she was deeply aware of the fact that the group she was expected to say something like a prayer over was an extremely diverse mix of many or no faiths. What could she say that wouldn’t offend someone?
No problem, said I. I was a Unitarian, and I was sure there was something in our hymnal that could either be used verbatim or adapted for this occasion. We specialized in blessings designed for those from all walks of religious life after all. It didn’t seem particularly worrisome to me that my family and I had never said any such blessing from Singing the Living Tradition or any other source. There had to be something!
All I needed to do was call or stop by my church and either pick a book up or copy a few blessings for my friend to choose from. And so my cockiness and less than careful word-choice doomed me for yet another frustrating UU conversation when someone picked up the phone at my church.
“We don’t have prayer books,” said the woman.
“I just need something to use at a high school dinner blessing,” I replied, a little taken aback by her instant shut-down.
“We’re Unitarians,” she replied, “We don’t pray.”
Uh-oh. But the seventeen-year-old me pressed on. “It really doesn’t need to be a prayer,” I said. “I just need something that could apply to many religions for this event.”
“We don’t have prayer books,” said the woman.
Yes we do, I thought to myself. I had spent plenty of time before services reading the various benedictions, offerings, or readings or whatever they were called in that book in my pew. If only I could remember the name on the cover perhaps I could get this conversation going in the right direction. But, I just couldn’t remember it.
“I just want to borrow the book to look for something,” I said.
“We can’t help you.” she replied.
“But, I’m a member of the youth group,” I cried. “My mom does the catering for all the big events like the craft fair every year.”
“Oh,” said the woman. “You can stop by and grab a copy of our hymnal if you want.” Hymnal, that’s the word I should have used.
I need to put aside the wish that any member or friend would have been a little more friendly and helpful to anyone in need, even if an unforgivable word of prayer came into the conversation. What I want to get to is the idea of saying grace over a meal, or any food for that matter.
It turns out that there was the perfect blessing in the back of our hymnal: #515 “We Lift Up Our Hearts in Thanks” by Richard M. Fewkes. It was spiritual in that it gave thanks for all the things that are truly beyond human power, but never made it feel like you had to be thanking a particular deity. My friend was grateful, and I was proud that UU’s had saved the day.
I was also a little regretful for the fact that my family had never used this, or any other blessing before a meal at home. But, my family never practiced that particular ritual. Even for the big holiday meals like Thanksgiving. Even when I asked my still very Catholic grandmother if we could say grace, she treated it more as another silly play I wanted to put on for my own amusement, rather than something that our family should do together to bring us closer to the god she claimed to believe in.
I knew she prayed because my family often shared how many miracles had occurred when she said a novena. However, I had never actually seen her do it, and she had never encouraged me to kneel and say a prayer by my bed before going to sleep. I was left with the impression that prayer, if done at all, was something private and perhaps even a little shameful.
So I was a little uncomfortable years later in college, when a man I worked with clasped his hands together and bowed his head over the plastic tray full of over-processed line food. What was I supposed to do? Look away? Run away? Join in? He looked like he was having a private conversation, so I decided to just wait it out, if I could without breaking into nervous laughter. Luckily, he took very little time before raising his head and asking me what I thought about a problem we were having with the computers.
It wasn’t the first time since that high school dinner that I had been wistful about saying a blessing over my food. But, I still felt rather powerless to say any such blessing myself. After all, who or what should I ask to bless it? What should I say? Who was I to ask? I didn’t overcome these obstacles until years after that.
Today, there is a little index card in the drawer of the living room coffee table where my husband and I eat most of our meals. It has two short, non-godtalk blessings on it. Occasionally we read them aloud. But, more often, I just think about them when we are eating. If I catch myself not noticing what I’m eating, or feeling only negativity when I eat, I stop. I reflect on the good fortune that I have food, even if it’s not exactly what I would have wanted, or I’m stressed that we needed to put this weeks groceries on the ever-growing credit card balance.
I try to think about only the food, not only how it tastes, but all the miracles that needed to occur for me to be able to eat it.
If I’m really stuck, I remember a wonderful fantasy novel called The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. The protagonist of that story was cursed with a supernatural gift to taste the emotions of whoever made her food. Through food, she learns her mother is deeply unhappy. She tastes the anger and frustration or whatever other negative emotion was in someone’s heart when they made what she tastes. She finds it nearly impossible to eat, and seeks overly-processed packaged food like twinkies that have the diluted tastes of many individuals and machinery. She is deeply grateful for those options that she can stand to eat. In other words, she says her own kind of heartfelt grace over the foods that we may give the least amount of thought or blessings.
Then on a particularly horrible day, she has a bowl of soup in a restaurant that is “warm, kind, fused, whole. It was easily, without question, the best soup I had ever had, made by a chef who found true refuge in cooking.”
I like to reflect on that story whenever I am cooking or eating. First, I feel lucky to not have that particular power to taste emotion in food, for all the trouble it caused Bender’s protagonist. But, I also try to imagine that I could taste all those people and plants and animals as separate entities that are working together to fuel my body and soul. It reminds me of all the separate miracles that make up every bite I take. That’s a little embarrassing too, so I do it silently while chewing, rather than bowing my head.
Of the many attempts I’ve heard to define religion, without getting into separating definitions of Unitarian and Universalism, or Islam, or Christianity or Pagan, the best are these simple words: gratitude and connection. Food is something to be grateful for, and something that should remind us of all the ways we are connected to the global village of human and the ecosystem. Even if it’s just a twinkie.