Prayer is something that I struggle with. Seeing as I’ve published two books of liturgies, you might find this surprising. But the truth is that being a writer doesn’t make you an expert on something, and most writers are just coping with their struggles by putting them on paper to share with others. I write prayers when I don’t know what else to do, when I cannot make sense of the gap between the way things are and the way things should be.
I want to be better at prayer. I want to pray more consistently, more instinctively, more trustingly. But mostly I want to better understand why we are commanded to pray by our Lord, and what sorts of things we ought to be praying for. I often think that there is a significant a gap between why we are supposed to pray and why we do pray. And I frequently have the sense that there’s a similar gap between what we ought to pray for and what we do pray for.
One of the places I feel this disconnect most acutely is at mealtime prayers. When I pray before a meal with family or friends, I find myself at a loss for how I should pray, and so I default to rather clumsily “heaping up empty phrases.” In a moment of prayer that should be most intimate, meaningful, and simple, as we give voice to our gratitude for the most basic necessities of physical life, I find myself mumbling out familiar — but largely meaningless — turns of phrase that have been lodged in my brain over years: “Thank you for this day;” “Bless this food to our bodies;” “In your name I pray, Amen.”
Of course there is nothing the least bit wrong with any of these phrases, praises, or blessings in themselves (though I do question the efficacy of asking that pizza be blessed to our bodies). But why do we say them? For me, I know that when these requests and sayings come out of my mouth, it’s because I don’t know what else to say, and so I resort to the sort of empty phrases that our Lord instructs us to avoid. My praying is no longer directed toward God, but has become for the sake of ritual and performance for other people.
As I say, I struggle to understand prayer, or to articulate what exactly prayer is and should be. But when I look at the example of our Lord’s Prayer, I am sure that ours shouldn’t be mindless or haphazard. And as someone whose understanding of God has been profoundly transformed and deepened through learning to love food, I am convinced that we should find ways to imbue our mealtime prayers with meaning, trusting that as we obey Jesus’s example we will learn to better know and love both him and the good creation of which we declare him Lord.
This will mean taking seriously why we pray and what we pray when we sit down for a meal. Doing so, I think, can press us to reflect on what it means to be grateful for the food in front of us — food that we did not plant or harvest ourselves, and that no amount of human effort could cause to grow — which, in turn, will foster a greater thankfulness for the earth God has made us a part of and a deeper understanding of what it means to be human before our Creator. And so I offer this table prayer, for whatever use you might find in it — pray it as is, alter it slightly, or use it as inspiration for your own:
Father and Creator of life, we praise you for the provision of this food.
Thank you for the soil in which it was grown;
For the rain and sun that gave it life;
For the hands that tended and harvested it;
For the feet that carried it to our neighborhood;
For those who organized and sold it to us;
For the love of the one(s) who prepared it for us tonight;
And for your Son who has redeemed the world in his resurrection.