I’m sitting at a brightly coloured octagonal table with seven other children. We all have lunch boxes; we’re waiting for the school-dinner children at the other end of the dining hall to be served. And then the headmaster, who is sitting at one of the hot-dinner tables, hushes us into a silence punctuated by hungry swallows and yawns, and, in unison, we say: For what we are about to receive, may the lord make us truly thankful. Amen. And we eat. This is the lunchtime ritual. We know it like the backs of our hands.
I was a) a child and b) non-religious at the time, so I didn’t really think about what we said. It was just the thing that came before food. I had an almost Pavlovian response to it. Even now, I can taste chicken spread sandwiches and orange squash when I think of those words. It was all about the anticipation.
While I’m no longer a child, I’m still non-religious, and I haven’t had any cause to say grace since I left that school at the age of 11. But I have come to appreciate its value as an expression and recognition of gratitude, and as a way of slowing down, taking less for granted. It’s still not something I do, but it’s something I’m interested in, something I think would be worth trying.
The Wikipedia entry for grace says, “in many indigenous cultures around the world... the saying of grace does not signify human dominion, but rather recognition of a plant or animal's giving their life...” Grace does not have to be religious. It is possible to observe this ritual without giving thanks to an entity you may not have faith in.
I have a friend who’s in the habit of bowing at meal times. I’m a little too self-conscious to pull this off comfortably, but I love the way he does it: sometimes little more than a gentle nod of the head; sometimes his hands pressed together as though in prayer and that nod towards the person who has cooked the meal. That waiting, that prolonging of anticipation and that thankfulness is a valuable addition to a meal. I should try it.
Image by Albrecht Dürer