I grew up with the tradition of saying a silent prayer before and after each meal in my Amish family and community. Once we were gathered around our kitchen table, my father would say "Händt nunna" (Hands down) and we would all put our hands in our laps and bow our heads. When we heard my father's hands brushing up over his denim pants, it was the signal that he was finished.
When I was very young, I didn't know I should be praying during that time. And then when I did know that, I didn't know how to pray because we were not taught how to pray in our own words. Once I was old enough to have learned the Lord's prayer in German, I would say that. I think that was what my father did too, because about the time I was saying "Amen," Datt was getting ready to look up.
Now that I think back, I realize that taking that time to quiet our minds and hearts was a form of prayer all on its own. Perhaps that is why the Amish tradition of mealtime prayer does not actually guide people what to say during that quiet time.
When I left my community the second time, I was introduced to the Roman Catholic tradition of "saying grace" in David's family. The words were said in unison, "Bless us Oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen" and were accompanied with "the sign of the cross" at the conclusion. I never knew whether I was expected, as a non-Catholic to participate in the prayer, and I felt uncomfortable with making the sign of the cross for several reasons. First of all, I would get it wrong, about which shoulder to touch first — I would be going in one direction, while everyone else was going in the other. It also felt like a betrayal of my own prayer traditions. What I hadn't realized when I was still in my community, is that there was a reverence that came with invoking quiet during "hands down." In David's family, I missed that reverence, especially if there was a television or radio going in the background, or if David's father started the prayer before everyone had gathered around the table. This prayer tradition felt like an "assignment" before a meal, rather than truly feeling what people were saying. Consequently, I began bowing my head during their prayer time. It gave me a moment to center and feel gratitude for my blessings.
When David and I became part of a Presbyterian church community, we liked the tradition of people holding hands and singing the Doxology together during potlucks or other mealtime get togethers. Around that time, we also encountered people "composing" prayers before mealtime. Neither David nor I ever became comfortable with doing this ourselves. Though a few years ago, we were eating with my Mennonite aunt and cousin, and my Aunt Martha said a prayer just before breakfast outside. It came out so naturally, it was as if she was having a personal conversation with God, thanking him for the birds in the trees and for nature and the food we were about to eat. Both David and I wished we could say prayers like that.
When I was living with my friends, Deborah and Steve, I learned the Quaker tradition of holding hands around the table and bowing our heads in silent prayer. It was very much like the tradition I grew up with, but instead of getting the cue from my father, it would come when someone squeezed my hand. I never knew who at the table started the "signal."
This past May, when the Kochs came to visit from Switzerland, we learned a new prayer tradition. They had two songs that five-year-old Hadassah would choose from, and we would hold hands while they sang. Recently they recorded one of these songs, and I am sharing it with you here. Below the video you will find the song translated into English.
In English: "You provide every animal with food and every flower with water. And you have never forgotten us as either. Heavenly Father we thank you. Amen"
When David and I began our own household, we did not start our own mealtime prayer tradition. I often have regretted that, because to this day we haven't established one. David never really found the Catholic prayer meaningful, but he also feels uncomfortable with silence. Because neither of us feels comfortable with composing prayers, that leaves us without a tradition of our own. As I write this, I realize it is never too late to start. Which prayer tradition we settle on is not as important as establishing one. We need to create a ritual to express our reverence and gratitude.
What mealtime prayer traditions are you familiar with? Which ones do you find meaningful?