Mealtime Practice

Practice of the Week
Mealtime Practice

Category: Supporting Practices: observances that support and expand developing spirituality.
“Be there when you eat. Achieve the fullest experience of your food. Taste it. Savor it. Pay attention to it. Rejoice in it.” (Marc David)
Adapted from Aaron R. Payson, "Mealtime," in Everyday Spiritual Practice

Slowing Down, Being Together

I, too, became a part of the rushing crowd. As a student, I had grown accustomed to eating pizza at midnight as I studied for exams or grabbing a sandwich between classes. During the first year or so of my ministry and my marriage, I operated in much the same way. Meals were a grab-them-when-you-can, if-you-can prospect. Sitting down to eat was a novelty.

Many families struggle to juggle competing work schedules, school activities, and community commitments. It is nearly impossible to find time to sit down to share a meal together. Yet taking time to eat together can be one of the most important activities that families do.

Mealtime is a spiritual discipline: an activity through which those gathered may discover depth and meaning in their lives.

The speed with which we attempt to complete our lives and complete our meals ultimately hampers our experience of eating itself. That’s what was happening to me. Then one day as I was yet again eating what would pass for dinner alone at my desk in my office, I decided to put a stop to all the eating on the fly. It wouldn’t be easy, but I had the advantage of lessons learned as a child with my family around the dinner table.

Saying Grace

Eating is a sacred act, which is why, in most religious traditions, mealtime is made distinct from other activities by beginning with a time of grace of blessing so that those gathered to partake of the sustenance before them might be mindful of their connection to each other, to the environment, and to that which is holy around and within them.
“This food is the gift of the whole universe: the earth, the sky and much hard work. May we live in a way that makes us worthy to receive it. May we transform our own unskilled states of mind and eat with moderation. May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent illness. We accept this food so that we may realize the path of understanding and love.” (Zen mealtime sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh)

“The Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord for giving me the things I need – the sun and the rain and the apple seed. The Lord is good to me.” (attributed to Johnny Appleseed)
Mealtime grace is, for those who practice it, a key aspect of gratitude practice. Grace at mealtime is a ritual awakening to the reality of our relationship of gratitude for all that sustains us. Slowing down for gratitude also slows us down to more fully appreciate our food.

At one Thanksgiving meal in my childhood, we arrived at the dining room to discover five single kernels of corn on each person’s plate. We sat down, and Mother began, “It is said that when the pilgrims gathered at the first Thanksgiving table, each person was given just five kernels of corn, for that is all that they had to share. So now we take this opportunity to share with each other five things for which we are thankful this year.” I remember scrambling when my turn came. I expressed thanks for a new bike, roller skates, my new friend Jimmy, and even my little brother. The next year, and the next, and the one after that, became more important. As I grew, this ritual began to take on significance.
“I am thankful for the health of my family, for the opportunity to be together in the spirit of love, and for the gift of food.”
Setting a Place for One More

During Pesach, or Passover, families and communities celebrate their journey out of bondage to the promised land. As the table is set with the elements of the ritual Seder meal, a place is set for the prophet Elijah, who, during the course of the meal, is welcomed into the room and invited to the table, where a glass of wine is poured for him. My mother set an extra place at the table each night. Some nights, it went unused, and we thought about those whom we missed at our table. Many nights, however, the place got filled by an unexpected friend my brother or I brought home, or by a person who just stopped by for a moment to chat with my father, who was a minister.

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The ingestion of food is only a minuscule portion of what it means to take in sustenance. Reclaiming mealtime is a spiritual discipline when we remember the depth of our own connections to others, to the earth and the elements that help us to grow, and to the divine spark within each of us that ignites around good company and is aflame through the presence of love that is also the substance of grace.

I realized that if I just slowed down, breathed a little, I was already ahead of the game. Saying grace wasn’t so hard. I was and am grateful for many things.

A healthy spirituality grew our latest New Year’s dinner from an intimate gathering of six to an even more intimate fifteen. With the places all set, we delightedly took our time, getting to know each other, passing around the potatoes, and enjoying ourselves. We said grace. We talked of new things we had learned over the past year. We were too full to have dessert right away, which gave us an excuse to linger over coffee as our bodies and heart found the room.

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List of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index"

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