“Bless us, O Lord,
For these, thy gifts,
Which we are about to receive,
Through Thy bounty,
Through Christ, our Lord,
I watched a family having lunch the other day, a young mom with a baby in a stroller and a three or four-year-old trying to help out, mom’s sister on a cell phone and grandpa. When the baby woke up they sat him up and set about to entertain him with a little music player. The baby’s and grandpa’s eyes seemed to light up to equal intensity. For some reason watching this family reminded me of the importance of family and my own experiences around the dinner table when we were growing up.
Being the oldest boy (though the third child) it somehow fell to me to say the prayer before dinner every night (yes, for the most part for most of our lives growing up we all had dinner together every night). I don’t remember how old I was when this tradition began, but I’m guessing that it might have been around the time of my first communion (around 2nd grade?). But as far back as I can remember if I was there at dinner time, I said the prayer.
Looking at the words of the prayer now, I can only imagine that as a six- or seven-year-old I learned to mouth the words like a teenager in Tokyo learns to sing an American pop song: I learned to make the sounds and can still remember the rhythm of the words…
It’s difficult to separate out later attitudes but I’m pretty sure that even as a little kid I understood the idea of praying to God and the concept of being thankful for things. Beyond that it’s highly unlikely that I understood what the word “Bounty” meant (this being decades before the word would be usurped by a paper towel company). But even in my very limited understanding of the concepts or the richness of the words, I have to believe that it was fundamentally important that I participated in this family tradition. And it’s very likely that the seeds of my present thirst for intimate worship was borne from years of being the little kids saying the prayer before the family meal.So when I look at my nieces and nephews, who were raised for the most part with the “we’ll let them decide later” approach to “religious training,” I have to believe that they’ve been denied an essential foundation in their lives, most likely in the name of marital religious differences of opinions and the fact that my siblings were much less likely to share a common meal with their offspring every night. Granted, I who was nowhere to be seen when my own son was growing up, have little “practical experience” to justify my comments and observations, and it’s dangerously too easy to get sentimental about something that I haven’t had to deal with on a daily basis. That said, it seems that presenting a united front, like my brother and his wife have done, is important in passing on a consistent religious heritage that, I think, their son will internalize and make his own as he passes from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. But quite frankly, there’s no prefect system.
When I reached my teenage years I rebelled against my folks like every other teenager. Well, maybe not like every other teenager. I mean, my “rebellion” was against having to say the same prayer at dinner every night. My contemporaries were rebelling against their parents by experimenting with drinking and sex and drugs, while I rebelled against my relatively strict Catholic upbringing by becoming a long-haired Jesus-Freak. Others were getting lost in the sexual revolution and I chose to rebel against my mom’s Catholic belief that only the priests could interpret and understand the Bible. This isn’t to say that I didn’t want to experiment with these other forms of rebellion (particularly sex), it’s just that my embryonic sense of self began with my Faith instead of my libido.
Funny thing is that as much as I wanted the nightly prayer to come more “from the heart” than some memorized words, it was difficult to not say the same thing every night. Eventually I ended up saying the same thing pretty much every night but at least they were more my words than what I’d said before. Then before I knew it I was out of the house and living at college and, I guess, it was soon up to me to begin the family tradition myself. I hate to say that in the thirty-years that have passed, through a failed marriage, a kid I never knew, many relationships long gone, that I’ve pretty much failed at passing on the family traditions. I don’t know that I’ll ever get a chance to share what I’ve learned or participate in seeing the family traditions make their way into the lives of the next generation. But every time I see a little one sitting with her folks eating lunch or dinner I’m drawn to remember how precious and important and meaningful such things can be in guiding to becoming the people we eventually become. jbb