What ingredients make for a good mealtime prayer?

Wisely, the Jewish tradition of prayer holds it unthinkable to ask anything of God without first offering praise and thanks

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Q: In my family, as I grew up, we prayed before and after meals. Before eating, without fail, we prayed, “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.” Afterward, again without fail, we prayed, “We give thee thanks, Almighty God, for all thy benefits which we have received from thy bounty through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.”

We are still using these prayers, but some people are praying extemporaneously at mealtime. We have tried this but it hasn’t worked out very well. How can we get started in praying this way? What are the characteristics of good extemporaneous meal prayers? Finally, the people who pray extemporaneously at meals never seem to pray afterward, as we are accustomed to doing. Why?

A: Prayers before and after meals are part of Jewish and Christian life. At the beginning of the third century, for example, Tertullian encouraged Christians to pray at various times during the day and night, including before meals. He explained that “the refreshment and sustenance of the spirit ought to be given precedence over those of the flesh, because heavenly things have precedence over earthly.”

And, indeed, Christians through the ages have followed such advice. For generations this prayer has taken the form of the venerable “Grace Before Meals” and the “Grace After Meals,” which you cite as the prayer your family has said and continues to say.

But, as you point out, some Catholics are praying extemporaneously at meals. In saying such prayers myself, and in helping others to do so, I have found the Jewish “berakah,” or blessing, to be a very helpful model. A closer look at the components of this prayer will make clear why.

Getting started

Wisely, the Jewish tradition of prayer holds it unthinkable to ask anything of God without first offering praise and thanks. That is the first element of prayer, praise and thanks.

As a result, Jewish prayers begin with an expression of praise — for example, “Blessed are you, Lord our God” — that springs from remembrance of God’s gifts, past and present. That is the second element, remembrance. Only then, on the basis of this remembrance, do such prayers voice a humble request for more of God’s spiritual and material gifts. That is the third element, the request. The final element of the prayer is another offering of praise, which is sealed by the “amen.”

Here is a sample prayer before meals based on this traditional Jewish pattern, with the four elements indicated in parenthesis:

Leader: Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe (the praise), for you provide nourishing food for all your creatures and sustain the whole world with your goodness, kindness and loving favor (the remembrance). Send your blessing upon this food and may it strengthen to serve you and your people, especially those who do not share our abundance (the request). All glory and honor to you gracious God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord (second praise).

All: Amen.

This prayer invites variety in expressing what we are thankful for (God’s marvelous deeds in creation and redemption as well as God’s generous gift of food) and in noting what we are celebrating (the particular natural or liturgical season, a feast day or name day, or a special family day like a birthday or baptismal anniversary).

The Liturgy of the Hours, the church’s public prayer throughout the day, also provides a model that families can use to pray around the table in the morning and evening.

The parts coming before the Scripture reading might be adapted for use before the meal. They are an introductory verse and response, perhaps a hymn, a psalm and a psalm-prayer based on it.

The Scripture reading, reflection, Gospel canticle (Zachary’s Benedictus in the morning, Mary’s Magnificat in the evening), intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer, and a blessing might follow. The Episcopal “Book of Common Prayer” (The Seabury Press, 1979) includes excellent outlines and texts for such prayer: “An Order of Worship for the Evening” and “Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families,” especially the one for use “In the Early Evening.”

Benedictine Brother Dietrich

Reinhart and I wrote a series of table prayers for our monastic community to use during the liturgical seasons and on greater feasts. These were published as “To Thank and Bless: Prayers at Meals” (Liturgical Press, 2007, $7.95). Each set’s variable introduction leads into an invariable response for the entire season, which is followed by a prayer of blessing for the meal.

The prayer after the meal complements the prayer before and completes each set. The prayers are arranged according to the seasons and solemnities of the liturgical year and echo the familiar Scripture readings that nourish God’s family at the Eucharist. Thus, families are reminded of the link between the dining room table and the eucharistic table. Here is one of these prayers for Lent:

Before the meal

Leader: Let us turn back to the Lord, our God, who is gracious and compassionate, long-suffering and ever constant, always ready to relent. Though our sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.

All: Though they are red as crimson, they shall be made like wool.

Leader: Ever-patient God, meet us as we set ourselves to know you, and leave a blessing upon our table and all those dear to us. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen

After the meal

Leader: Abiding Lord, we thank you for this meal and for your faithful presence in our lives. As we grow more deeply open to you, we shall praise and magnify your name, for ever and ever.

All: Amen

Families, especially those with small children, might like to write their own table prayers and letter them onto paper or vinyl placemats with washable ink.

Today’s challenges

Regarding the omission of a prayer after meals, I would note that many of the themes in traditional prayers of this kind (especially the theme of thanksgiving) are now often included in extemporaneous prayer before the meal.

Also, a practical problem may be influencing custom here. While it may be difficult to round up all the family members for prayer at the beginning of the meal, various demands on their time may make it nearly impossible to have all of them present for prayer at its end.

While prayer at both the beginning and end of the meal may be ideal, each family will have to decide what form and when is best for them.

In his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis encouraged families to return to the “beautiful and meaningful custom” of prayer before and after meals: “That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labors provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need” (no. 227).

In his homily on the feast of the Holy Family on Dec. 27, 2015, Pope Francis reminded us that “it is important for families to join in a brief prayer before meals, in order to thank the Lord for these gifts and to learn how to share what we have received with those in greater need.”

Blessings upon your table and upon all who taste there the Lord’s spiritual and bodily nourishment!

Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at mkwatera@csbsju.edu or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015.