Saying grace

November 20, 2006 | 15 comments

Needless to say, I am not in the habit of thanking God for my meals before I eat. (I remember the first time I encountered this concept as a child, when I was at a friend’s house for dinner. The mother asked me to say grace. Everyone was staring at me. I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t think of a good way to fake my own death to get out of it so I just literally said, “Grace?” They thought I was mocking them. Train wreck.) Anyhoo…

I’ve found it difficult to get into the habit of saying a prayer before meals. This is one Christian cultural tradition that doesn’t totally resonate with me, which is surprising since it seems to resonate with everyone else. Of course I am grateful for the incredible abundance of food in our society. And I know that I need food in order to live; but I also need water and shelter. I don’t feel any more or less compelled to pray before eating than before drinking water, walking into my house, etc.

I am definitely missing something here, I just can’t put my finger on what it is. Why is it so firmly embedded in Christian culture to pray before eating but not before receiving other life-sustaining gifts?


  1. Anonymous

    I’m not sure myself. I did not grow up saying grace before meals, and I try to remember to do so, but I honestly tend to remember only at dinner (or when we eat as a family on weekends) and when in larger groups (esp. with our homeschool co op).

    I’m trying to remember more often, though. I think it’s a matter of having a moment as we are sitting down, obviously a break in the rest of our routine, to formally thank God.

  2. SteveG

    I think it’s tied so tightly to meal times because they are so ‘communal’ in nature. We eat to survive, but we eat together to bond, to build family/community.

    The shared meal is so integral to human bonding that I don’t even know where to begin the case for that.

    The shared meal of the covenant.

    The importance of family meals that research has recently been tauting.

    The Passover meal.

    The Eucharist itself is of course sacrifice, but also meal (based on the passover after all).

    I think that’s a big part of it.

    Here’s a transcribed lecture by Scott Hahn called Eucharist, One Holy Meal that might shed more light on what I am trying to get at.

    Also, the fact that meals (even when alone) are somewhat regular in interval allows the tying of grace (thanks) to them to be our reminders to periodically say thank you. Just like we have regular morning and evening prayers, we try to build these regular touchstones of prayer into the fabric of our day to help us remember we are in God’s presence.

    I know that if I didn’t say thank you at grace, and instead just promised to say it ‘every so often’, it’s more likely than not that I’d say it far less often.

    Anyway, pressed for time, those are just the thoughts off the top of my head.

  3. Faith

    Your response to the mother asking you to say Grace is so funny. This is what my in laws do every year. One Thanksgiving back when I was first married, I screwed up nerve to politely suggest we say grace before our Thanksgiving meal. To which all my in laws shouted “Grace” and then promptly dug into their food! They aren’t believers, but really it was quite funny, so it got to be a bit of a tradition. But then a couple of years ago, realizing I was never going to get a prayer out of them, I suggested we all go around the table and think of something we were especially grateful for that year. That one worked, everybody dutifully stated something and it actually made Thanksgiving feel like Thanksgiving instead of just an excuse for Turkey and football games.

    It is sort of like Grace for Atheists!

    But I agree with Christine and Steveg, that the fact that meals are a break from the rest of life and have a communal feel is the reason Grace became so traditional.

    Really, I think it is a lovely thing to do even if you only remember to do it once a day. Anything that recalls God’s presence in the ordinary is lovely.

  4. Anonymous

    I see it as being one more aspect of that “prescription” thing you were talking about a few posts back. Grateful people are happy people, at least in my experience, and the Church encourages us to be mindful of all the good things God has given us on a regular basis (meals hopefully being regular!) in no small part because a spirit of gratitude is a very good thing for the human soul. Good food is a concrete “good” that most of us can relate to and appreciate, so it makes sense the church would suggest that it’s healthy for the soul to express our gratitude to God for our meals.

  5. Anonymous

    As usual, Jen, you make me think about things I take for granted.For those of us who grew up saying grace before meals, the practice certainly has theological implications, but probably more importantly, it has emotional attachments as well. Meal times were one of the most consistent times our family prayed together outside of Mass. So many happy times are linked with our family meals that the warm associations with saying grace keep me attached to the practice. Since some of my children are now in college, the times when the whole brood is together have become fewer and fewer. Marking these times with prayer, especially at meal times, is a treasured tradition.

  6. Kate

    Our graces often turn into prayers of thanks for all the other things you mention (breath, life, work, shelter), and like others here, I think that sitting down for a meal gives us a break and a moment to recollect.

    Of course, if it seems arbitrary to you, you could add on a morning offering, evening offering, and prayer every time you enter or leave the house.There’s no problem with praying more often. 🙂

  7. Adoro Te Devote

    Saying grace isn’t just a tradition…it is a DUTY to God!

    What saying grace does is thank God for the gifts He has provided. We need to recognize that all that we have proceeds from God. Our jobs, our money, the food which is the fruit of our labors…this comes from God. Just ask the homeless guy on the stree who was employed a month ago and owned a home with a precarious mortgage….

    Under Catholic Social teaching, we are to recongnize that God is the source of all…especially our lives. And He provides what we need.

    It is a simple thing just to say grace and recognize that very humbling fact…that but for God giving us life, we would not need to thank Him for our food. Without food, we would also have no life in us.

    Bless us, oh Lord, for these our gifts, which we are about to recieve, THROUGH THY BOUNTY through Christ our Lord….AMEN


  8. melanie b

    As usual, Steve G has already hit on all the avenues of thought that I’d have suggested. But here are some random thoughts that build on what he said.

    The main one I’d emphasize is that the Eucharist is a meal. For some reason God chooses to come to us in the form of bread and wine.

    My husband likes to think of it in this way: God could have created us to be like plants, taking all that we needed from the eath or the air or the sun. But He didn’t. Instead he made us beings that need to eat.

    Is it possible that He did so for the very reason that one day we might be able to receive Him in the Eucharist?

    In many cultures eating a meal with someone has a special significance. In the ancient world often people would not eat with those who were not of their tribe. You see that in the Bible when the Jews refuse to eat with Gentiles. Jesus breaks that rule when He breaks bread with all sorts of undesirables.

    I seem to recall hearing stories of cultures in which once you have shared a meal with someone you are bound not to kill them.

    The word “companion” literally means someone you have bread with (com = with, pan = bread).

    When I lived in Italy for a while the form of grace we learned was a bit different than the one I learned in English. Roughly translated: Bless us Lord and the food we are about to eat and teach us to share it with the poor.

  9. alicia

    something else to think about
    I have sometimes thought that we should say a prayer of thanskgiving before marital relations (and the traditional Catholic grace before meals would fit very well)
    Bless us O Lord, for these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive.

    Are you also aware that there is a custom of saying a grace AFTER a meal?

  10. Kate


    This may be TMI but we often do (and as newlyweds did consistently for months) just that. And we almost never forget a prayer of thanksgiving afterwards (and usually a blessing over the other spouse). The prayer of Tobit is a nice place to start and was our inspiration.

  11. faith

    I just ran across a really nice G.K. Chesterton quote that speaks to this thread:

    “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace befor I dip my pen in the ink.”

  12. Cathym

    I have always said the blessing before dinner, but rarely think about it at other meals. I’m working on it, though! By the way, it’s actually: Bless us, O Lord, AND these, thy gifts…

  13. Mike J

    While I’m struggling on the edge of atheism, I still retain knowledge. So here’s some of the answer as I’ve picked it up. [Of course it all sounds kind of theoretical to me now. 🙁 ]

    There is actually a complex theology around praying over meals. It’s based in sacramental theology. If you haven’t learned about that yet, you should start. It’s important to any Christian sect that is liturgical and believes in the real presence.

    First it’s part of acknowledging that we are dependent creatures, thus we need food, air, water… And of course God enables us to have it and live by it.

    Second, as others have mentioned, it relates to the Eucharist. In it we take Christ into us and He becomes part of us, as we are being made a part of Him as His Body. Likewise with other food, we take it in and it becomes part of us, and thus part of the body of Christ. Anything that is to become part of the body of Christ should be taken with reverence and should be blessed as it becomes part of Him.

    Third, it stops time for us for a moment, and moves us out of ourselves and our busy lives, into a moment of time with God. Rather than rushing on and stuffing our mouths, we take a moment to try to turn it into sort of “mini-Eucharist”. Eucharist after all means “thanksgiving”.

    Well. That’s a little of it. There’s lots more.

    Dang. I may just pray over tonight’s dinner after all.

  14. John C. Wright

    When I converted from Atheism to Christianity, this was one of the easiest of Christian habits for me to pick up. I say grace in restaurants before digging into my Happy Taco meat-flavored food substitute.

    Of course, I converted from my sick bed. The Grim Reaper had been standing close by, so to speak, and so the gift of life, and the promise of eternal life, were very near and dear to my heart.

    The symbolism appeals to me. The dead do not eat. That is the one thing Homer says about mortal men in his poems: mortals are called ‘men who eat bread’ (as opposed to gods who sup ambrosia and shades who eat nothing).

    We remember our lives and give thanks for the source of life when we break bread, and we recall the Bread of Heaven, the manna, which is one of the figures of Christ.

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