As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
“To pray in a restaurant is to interpret reality,” writes Richard Mouw in Uncommon Decency. “It is to give witness to my deep conviction that when I have entered into that very public place, I am still in the presence of God. It is his restaurant. It is his food. I am his creature.”
Mouw’s words speak to a time-honored practice for most Christians today: praying before meals. But for me growing up, deep conviction was not what was foremost on my mind when I prayed before most meals—at home, at restaurants, and at school. In my mind, God was like an unpredictable parent who would angrily explode or a stony-faced god who would curse my food if I forgot to mumble my thanks before eating. Praying before meals—then, and sometimes even today—felt more like a guilt trip or a fearful superstition than a worshipful witness of God’s presence.
My thoughts about mealtime prayer were unexpectedly bolstered when I recently re-read The Lord of the Rings. In The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam have traversed the perilous landscape of Mordor when they run into Faramir and the men of Gondor, descendants of the Numenorians whose splendid city was completely destroyed in ancient times.
Faramir takes the hobbits to a secret cavern behind a waterfall, where Sam and Frodo find much-needed rest and provision. Just before the group prepares to eat, the men of Gondor turn and face west in a moment of silence.
“So we always do,” (Faramir) said, as they sat down: “we look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be. Have you no such custom at meal?”
“No,” said Frodo, feeling strangely rustic and untutored. “But if we are guests, we bow to our host, and after we have eaten we rise and thank him.”
Reading this passage, I felt much like Frodo. How different my own mealtime prayers feel from the solemn longing of the men of Gondor. I suspect many of us might feel the same. The scant pages of our mealtime prayer book are similar to the hobbits’, rote and often perfunctory: “Dear God, thank you for this food, bless the hands that prepared it, amen.”
To be thankful and to ask for God’s blessing in our lives is an important act of worship. But for me, reading about the men of Gondor stirred something deeper. Seldom do I look beyond the immediate blessings of bread, host, and table to remember the greater eschatological end.
What would it look like for our thanksgiving to be something more? What would it look like for our mealtime prayers to become, most of all, an expression of longing for the presence of God? As we enter this season of thanksgiving, I want to see prayer before meals with fresh eyes. I want to reclaim it as a true act of worship.
Thank You for This Food
God created us to appreciate good food. Images of feasting and sumptuous eating saturate the Bible, often in connection with our relationship to God. “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good!” cries the psalmist, and in another place, “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food … when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night.” The prophet Isaiah pleads, “Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.”
The Creator did not have to make us with taste buds—what sustains our life did not also have to be enjoyable. “To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work,” writes Robert Farrar Capon in The Supper of the Lamb. “Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste.”
The mystery of perishable food is its imperishable significance. Our taste buds stoke our longing for the presence of God, keep us walking toward the marriage feast toward which all of history bends. The goodness of this roasted vegetable or this perfectly seared steak points to God’s mouth-watering, nourishing, strengthening goodness.
Good food confirms our hope that the feast of the Lamb will be a sumptuous repast, one that no eye has seen nor ear ever heard, nor taste bud ever conceived. Heaven’s banquet will not be dry toast with water, just as a true encounter with God is not stale and disappointing, but incomparable joy.
But sometimes the food on this side of heaven is just a boring bowl of leftovers. Not every week can be restaurant week, nor every meal Instagram-worthy. The same goes for our spirituality. Tish Harrison Warren writes in Liturgy of the Ordinary, “Powerful spiritual experiences, when they come, are a gift. But that cannot be the point of Christian spirituality, any more than the unforgettable pappardelle pasta dish I ate years ago in Boston’s North End is the point of eating.”
Warren points instead to the sustaining power of everyday meals that “quietly, even forgettably” feed us, reminding us that “some of the most astonishing gifts are the most easily overlooked.”
It is, after all, simple bread and wine that makes the Eucharist. It is milk, not prime rib or cupcakes, that we must long for, “that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 1:2-3). In this we are reminded that the point of the marriage feast in Revelation is ultimately not about the food, exquisite as it will be. It is most of all about the bride and the groom. That changes the way we eat and the way we live. It changes the way we pray before meals.
Sometimes when I eat soup, I think of Beth in her sickbed in the 1994 film Little Women, a childhood favorite of mine. In a warm room lit by candle, Claire Danes looks at Winona Ryder with her large, soulful eyes as she sips the hot broth on the spoon, held by her on-screen sister’s loving hand. Something about this image, of the sick Beth being cared for lovingly by Jo, has remained with me.
I wonder if it is because I, too, know what it is like to be a convalescent, a recovering sinner in need of a lifetime of care by the Savior. And I wonder, could my mealtime prayers be modeled after this scene? Not just to blindly sip the daily soup, but to gaze with love upon the One who feeds me?
Hunger for God
In another more recent movie, La La Land, the camera pans down rows of cars stalled bumper-to-bumper in the middle of one of Los Angeles’ infamous traffic jams. Then something magical happens: people start jumping out of their cars to dance and sing. The highway becomes a stationary backdrop to a musical number that ends with everyone belting out the final refrain before jumping back into their vehicles.
But what if they didn’t jump back in? What if the traffic jam went on all day and night, for weeks on end, and the people began to sleep there as the songs faded away? What if cars slowly became homes, the highway became a sidewalk, and the people all forgot they had meant to be somewhere else?
Another scene in Los Angeles looks precisely like this: Skid Row. Multitudes of homeless men and women roam zombie-like through the abandoned streets. Tents and trash line the sidewalks. It is as though the people stumbled into another dimension and never learned how to find a way out.
Sometimes our life of faith and prayer is like this. We settle for a tent on Alameda Street because we have forgotten what is meant by a room in our Father’s house. We clutch tightly to our comforts, luxuries, and securities because we have forgotten what is meant by the kingdom of God. Our prayers become dead ends and sieges instead of rivers of life.
Have we thanked the Lord for our food but lost our hunger for God? Have we sought the Lord for earthly provisions, but lost sight of our purpose in life—to glorify God and enjoy him forever?
Faramir and his men were descendants of a people whose city was completely destroyed. It was a time of exile, war, and waiting. The long-fabled return of the king seemed a far-fetched fairy tale. In such a time, rather than hiding in caves, they chose to persevere in fighting for all that was good.
The food they ate was not the only thing that sustained them—it was the hope and the longing for the Numenor that was, the Elvenhome that is, and that which is beyond Elvenhome that will ever be. It was a hope that sustained them in times of great darkness.
We too, like the men of Gondor, look to a kingdom that was, is, and ever will be. We too live in times of war and darkness, awaiting the coming of our King.
During this season of thanksgiving, may we gaze past the soup and the spoon to look into the face of the One who cares for us. Over our leftovers and our heaped plates, may we hear our Lord calling us to his banqueting table, where the banner over us is love. Like Faramir and his men, may our prayers be a symbol of our longing, an acknowledgement that it is not by bread alone we live, nor is it bread alone we live for.