Saturday, November 17, 2012

Family Prayer

A reader writes:
I come from a family with Christian values/views (generally that is the case). When we moved to the US, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday (FOOD). We used to say a quick Our Father before eating, but it never meant anything. Now we don't even do that- it is all about the food. Now, if anyone knows me they know that anything that stops me from getting food I will demolish. However, on Thanksgiving, when we don't say grace or really think about the meaning of the holiday, I somehow am disenchanted by the food. Can you maybe give a Catholic perspective on saying grace or the meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday. I realize that the background surrounding Thanksgiving is of a very Protestant culture, but I am sure there are some Catholic components as well. 
First, thank you for your comment and question. The reader essentially asks two things:

  1. Why do families not pray sufficiently anymore?
  2. What is the point of praying before a meal?
I will take these in opposite order. What is the purpose of praying before a meal? When I was in college I ran in some "non-denominational" circles, such as a protestant house which often invited me to their dinners and picnics. At one such event we were asked to "bow our heads, join hands, and pray." The pray went something like this:
"God, we just wanna say we're really grateful for the sunshine, for being here to eat some burgers, to have Ya bless our conversation, and, uhhhh, for Your Son, Jesus. In Jesus' Name! Amen."
My initial thought was: "Why were burgers mentioned before Our Lord?"

This extemporaneous prayer is a pious act, surely, but it rather misses the point. We often hear that before a meal one "says grace..." still not sure what that means.

Let us consider the conventional prayer before a meal:
Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gift, which we are about to receive, Thy bounty, through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
We ask God to sanctify what we about to consume so that it may nourish us in our daily task to fulfill all God has appointed us to do, but with an acknowledgement that we may do nothing without His facilitation, or at least consent. For this latter reason, we call our food His "bounty." This prayer is an invitation of God's blessing upon those gathered and a sign of cooperation in doing His Will. It is in this spirit that Christ blessed the bread and fish that He multiplied for feeding the 4,000 attending His sermon (Mark 8:1-9). Conventionally, a prayer of thanksgiving follows the meal. Would you thank God for absolution before going to Confession? Perhaps, in an expression of personal piety, but it is not necessarily instinct. If God Himself did it, it cannot be objectionable at all.

How could you not be thankful for this?

The second matter is family prayer. Not enough families pray together these days, a fault the devout have lamented for several decades. The absence of family prayer has debased our Catholic public identity, making Catholicism someone one does alone, in private devotion, rather than an open expression of faith that many can join. This eventually erodes one's confidence, unless one is blessed with a very traditional family or very good Catholic friends, and faith decays.

The Sacred Heart, Eastern style
Often the best people I know come from devout families that pray in common in some capacity every day. This invites the grace of God into one family, but also makes a person less timid about invoking God during times of hardship.

Also, family prayer binds the family to God, making the father, mother, and children into children of a higher Father. In France it was once traditional to "enthrone" an icon or picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus above the fireplace mantle and pray opposite this image as a family every day.

More recently, families would pray the Rosary in common. I would personally endorse this as the best of family prayers, as it makes Our Lady the ideal example to the parents in Her custody of Our Lord, and makes children follow Her example of humility. One can never go wrong with the Rosary.

Common prayer is quite powerful. I have been privileged to see many friends of mine convert, often after first seeing the faith of Christ through the prayers and devotion of/with others.

Another, lesser, benefit of common prayer is that it keeps us accountable. No one wants to appear slothful or disinterested before God, but what may start as vanity soon becomes concentration on the Majesty of God.

In short: pray before meals, pray with your family, pray with friends, pray for the world!


  1. That's so interesting that we pray before a meal when it was tradition to pray after the meal. Can't hurt to do it twice. :)

    Thank you for being so prompt with your answer!

  2. I've been musing over making family prayer life more liturgical oriented: i.e., having at least one prayer/practice associated with the day of the week's "theme", as per the Roman rite. So far I've thought up of the family performing the Mandatum on Thursdays, perhaps while singing Ubi caritas; on Friday, perhaps the 7 penitential psalms...

    Care to share any ideas?

    1. Something else you could do is pray the penitential psalms, one a day, during Lent. Or begin or end every day of Lent with psalm 50. Begin every day of the rest of the year with psalms 148-150 and end with the Compline psalms (4, 30:1-6, 90, 133).

      Another option for great feasts might be to contemplate a relevant icon, of which there are many and a great amount of information.

      A personal, perhaps odd, venture of mine is a more liturgical rosary: on feasts and Marian days pray the set of mysteries most relevant to the day. On "green" Sundays and Paschal Sundays pray the Glorious mysteries; first Sunday of Advent through Septuagesima pray the Joyful; and Septuagesima Sunday through Palm Sunday pray the Sorrowful. Omit the Gloria Patri et Filio.... during Passiontide. Omit the Fatima prayer during Paschaltide and add a triple Alleluia instead!

      Your could pray, in vernacular, part of the Office of the Dead on a given day of the week in November.

      Those are just some ideas that come to my poor mind. I hope you find some of them helpful.