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Simcha FisherMarch 15, 2022

America recently launched a national marketing campaign called #OwnYourFaith. This article is part of a series of essays tackling the questions many Catholics are asking about the church and the world. It’s time to #OwnYourFaith. Subscribe to America.

My kids once asked me if I knew what my own first word was, when I was a baby. And I had to tell them that it was “Amen.”

They were a little abashed. What a holy, prayerful child I must have been! But it wasn’t like that. My family always prayed before we ate, and since “amen” came right before the food, I thought it meant “Let’s eat.”

“AMEN! AMEN!” I would apparently holler like a pudgy little zealot, banging my spoon on the high chair tray like one hungering for the word of God, but actually just hungry.

The prayer we said before we got to “Amen” was a sort of all-purpose Hebrew prayer of blessing before a meal: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh ha’olam, shehakol nih’ye bidvaro. “Blessed art thou, o Lord our God, king of the universe, by whose word all things exist.”

I have always encouraged my kids to pray before they eat no matter where they are.

I have taught this prayer to my children, and this is the one we usually say before we eat at our house. It is very likely that, according to Jewish tradition, this is the wrong prayer to pray for most meals we eat (there are various prayers for different kinds of food), but as my kids tell their friends, we are only Jew-ish anyway, so we’re doing the best we can. I like it because it covers the bases: It acknowledges the majesty of God over everything that exists, including myself, and my family, and this plate of rigatoni or whatever. Amen, let’s eat.

And yes, we pray this prayer even when there are guests over. We give them a little warning that we’re going to pray in Hebrew, and they’re welcome to bow their heads if they’d like. Occasionally it has led to some interesting conversations about our heritage or about our faith.

And yes, we pray this prayer even when we’re eating out in public. I have always encouraged my kids to pray before they eat no matter where they are. I think it’s important.

They don’t have to make a big show of it. There is a fine line between being a witness and being a weirdo. To illustrate: My parents, in the first blush of enthusiasm of their conversion to Christianity, would not only pray before meals; they would sing the prayer. No matter where they were. Even at the Waffle House. As my older sisters remember it, my father had such an enduring love for bacon and orange juice, his joyful high spirits would sort of carry them through the embarrassment of having to sit there belting out, “Thank you, Jesus, for this food and for our home so fair; /Help us, Lord, to do some good, and keep us in thy care” while the waitress nervously stood by, and it wasn’t all that bad. Still, I don’t think my kids would ever forgive me for subjecting them to that level of evangelical spectacle.

You don’t have to make a big show of it. There is a fine line between being a witness and being a weirdo.

But I do gently push them to choose the mild discomfort of discreetly making the sign of the cross in Panera or the school cafeteria, bowing their heads while they pray silently, and then crossing themselves again before they dig in. I think it’s good for us to experience these tiny pricks of social martyrdom. If it makes us feel different, it reminds us that we are different. That’s what we’re doing here: being different. Maybe saying grace won’t get us tossed to the lions, but it may cause us a twinge of otherness when we have to say, “Oh, excuse me for a moment” to our lunch partner and then silently say grace. And that’s a good thing.

And it’s good for the world to see it, too. It is a kindness to interrupt the workaday sameness of mealtime routines with something that has no practical, nutritional or social value at all (at least in most places), but is purely a sort of spiritual skylight moment, when we pause and invite the divine to poke through into our day. It’s good for the world to remember that, when we sit and eat, we’re doing more than stuffing nutrition into our mouths, and more than gathering socially and more than feeding ourselves emotionally. We’re also partaking of a gift. We’re not just eating food, but we’re receiving it from someone. Whoever else is visibly present at the table, God is also there, and it’s a kindness to remind the world that this is so, or at the very least that some people still think so.

But the real reason to pray in public is, of course, exactly what it says in the prayer: to bless God. To acknowledge that he made us, he made the food, he made good things, and that we’re happy about it, we’re grateful, we’re glad. It really is that simple, sometimes. Whatever else is going on in my relationship with God, I find it a relief to settle into this simplest of prayers when I sit down to eat: simply acknowledging that God is there, and then thanking or blessing him. It’s such an easy thing to be faithful about, but such a good way to introduce prayer and maybe even a tiny little sacrifice into my daily life. It’s not hard to get it right. It’s so basic, it’s something even a baby can begin to understand. Amen! Let’s eat.

[It’s time to #OwnYourFaith. Subscribe to America.]

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