the penultimate WORD
Series 2005 -
The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
Courtesy has a magical effect.
Who among us has not heard the coaxing admonition of a parent at table: what is the “magical” word? The answer, limited to a “please” or a “thank you” is universal. While I am doubtful that the routine instils a sense of civility, I do think that we have been lured into a mindset where magic under girds much of our lives. If we are forthcoming with a prompt “please”, the request somehow cannot be avoided or declined.
We get the salt and pepper. We get the rolls and butter. And we get more. Parents and family members apply the pattern; and it has been seen extended to God.
Our supplicant “please” has an effect. Seldom does it disappoint. It has become a talisman.
“Thank you” seems less in demand. The salt and pepper now in hand, courtesy is no longer necessary.
Grace at meals has been part of my table habit from before I knew the polite exchange of “magical” words. My earliest recollection of table grace was when my plate was at eye level as I sat on the Eaton’s catalogue and a cushion. My father would say the grace and my mother and I would say “Amen”. That was our pattern until my father died. Then it became my rôle to say the grace at table.
The grace was immutable. My father did not embrace change and until his heart attack in 1955 his words were familiar and predictable: “O God, we thank you for this food; and we ask that your blessing be with us.” It was his grace. It did not echo the formula graces found in the Prayer Book. And it was not dependant on a liturgical vesicle and response. It prefaced our meals until I was ten years of age.
On returning home from the hospital, he paused before saying the grace at supper one evening. He observed that we had regularly acknowledged our thanks, and that our prayer was that God’s blessing would be with us. During his illness he reflected on this and on other events of our family’s life. God’s blessing was with us – in good times as well as in difficult times, in the health that we took for granted as well as in the illnesses that brought concern and worry. Better, he thought, that we recognize that God’s blessing was with us and that we begin to ask that it remain with us.
So he was going to change our grace accordingly. “O God, we thank you for this food; and we ask that your blessing remain with us.” It has continued so to this day.
He was faithful in observing the grace wherever we ate together. I recall one Sunday attending the early Holy Communion at Trinity Church, Saint John – our home parish. Bishop Henry O’Neil recently had become bishop of Fredericton, and it was his custom to attend the early Service as well when he was in the city for Confirmation. Following the Service my parents and I would often go a few doors along Charlotte Street for breakfast at the Riviera Restaurant. I looked forward to this time together. My parents would place their order for bacon and eggs while I looked forward to wonderful waffles and sausages. When the waitress brought our order grace soon was said. The Bishop, having breakfast in the restaurant, noticed our quiet moment as a family – and he came to our table to acknowledge that on his way to the cashier.
After his death 45 years ago, I have continued to recognize the principle my father shared with us that day now 50 years past.
I continued its use at college, in my parish, in my home, and in public places.
Thankfulness in the midst of each day, conscious of God’s blessing in the midst of each circumstance – these have been two principles that have been operative for me at every table. I have said the grace over Kraft Dinner and over Thanksgiving roast turkey. I have said this grace over a clubhouse sandwich in a hospital cafeteria and over a hot dog in an Exhibition Mid-way. The words have been heard at my dining room table and at the sick tray when I was hospitalized – now almost two years ago.
When I sit to eat with my adult children they pause before the meal and ask me to say grace. They know me well enough to know that I cannot eat without keeping faith with that simple tradition. I can consume nutrients – don’t worry dear reader, I do not neglect my health by avoiding a regular diet. But in company of others thanks is required. What I am saying is that I have found deep within my being the effect that my father’s simple grace has had on a life of now six decades.
The first principle is this: thankfulness is essentially corporate and not isolated. While I might be polite with “magical” words, my sense of thankfulness has been, from the very beginning, of the nature that required another to be thankful with. I cannot be thankful to God alone. Alone, I am only polite.
The compliment to this principle is that for which I share thanks: a continuing presence, in community. You and I bring together lives that are challenged and engaged by Emmanuel – God with us. Your life touched by God challenges my epiphany of redemptive presence; as mine might be a challenge for you to begin to see God. We neglect each other to our own peril. In you I begin to see the working out of redemptive love and the reality of God’s continuing presence, and I am moved to thanks.
That thanksgiving finds expression in liturgies, certainly, where we do not gather alone. And for those who find themselves alone with their doubts and their consternation, thanksgiving is reduced to “magic”, and often silence.
Copyright © 2005 James T. Irvine