Saying Grace: Plenty of people still give thanks before meals, and not just at the holiday table

Get a load of the Thanksgiving "grace" tradition at Judy Thomas' house in Hazelwood.

All the guests stand in a circle. Any first-time guest is presented with a sock, shoe, tree limb or other object and told to carry it and walk around the circle and into the kitchen while singing his or her favorite song.

Meanwhile, all the old-timers keep straight faces.

When the newcomer returns to the circle, he or she is instructed to do 10 jumping jacks.

Only then does everyone start laughing.

After this, the guests recite the Lord's Prayer together and take turns saying what they're thankful for -- but there are always plenty of muffled snickers, too.

Runnell Jones of Hazelwood, Judy Thomas's daughter, says her mother first came up with this tradition about 10 years ago, and they've been hoodwinking unsuspecting guests ever since.

Of course, now that it's in the paper, their jig is up.

Prayers through the years

A 1998 Gallup Poll showed that 64 percent of U.S. residents pray before eating meals, so saying grace hasn't gone the way of the dodo bird.

But it has undergone, shall we say, updating.

In our nation alone, mealtime prayers have changed drastically. For instance, here's an excerpt from a food-related Puritan prayer:

I bless thee ...
for the body thou has given me,
for preserving its strength and vigour,
for providing senses to enjoy delights...
for thy royal bounty providing my daily support,
for a full table and overflowing cup,
for appetite, taste, sweetness,
for social joys of relatives and friends,
for ability to serve others...

Contrast that with favorite contemporary mealtime prayers submitted by Post-Gazette readers:

• "God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for this food...." (submitted by many families, including Wilma Lersch, 86, of Spring Hill, who has said it since she was a little girl).

• "Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive...."

• "Oh, the Lord's been good to me, and so I thank the Lord...." (a sung grace known as the Johnny Appleseed grace).

In "Bless This Food: Ancient and Contemporary Graces from Around the World," author Adrian Butash explores mealtime prayers throughout history. His book, first released in 1993 and republished in an expanded edition this fall, includes 160 prayers stretching from the Vedas of Hinduism, circa 1500 B.C., to the present.

He finds commonalities: "Food blessings provide a window to the profound spirituality that we all share and that connects us to all humankind, nature, and the infinite," he writes in the book's introduction. One of his favorite prayers is a simple selection from Father John Giuliani of Bridgeport, Conn.:

Bless our hearts
to hear in the
breaking of bread
the song of the universe.
Prayers across cultures

Mr. Butash first lit on the idea for the book while visiting Boston around Thanksgiving 1991. At the Harvard library, he typed "food prayers" into the computer system, hoping to find a book of graces from various faith traditions. (This was in the pre-Internet era, he notes.) He spent a half hour getting back results like "consult Old Testament" and "consult New Testament," then had "a ding-dong moment.

"There is no book," he thought, "and I will write it."

He researched hundreds of prayers but whittled the selection to 160 Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and other prayers.

The common thread, he says, is mankind's "need to connect to the Almighty." He includes prayers viewing that "Almighty" as the sun, the spirit in the food itself (as expressed in Native American prayers asking forgiveness of the animal killed in the hunt), gods or one God.

In fact, Mr. Butash, who studied philosophy and world cultures at Fordham University, contends that early cave paintings depicted not just hunting but thankfulness for food.

He calls his research "a beautiful quest," noting it was a thrill to stumble on such gems as an obscure 16th-century Aztec prayer celebrating corn -- the prayer of a simple culture concurrent with the Renaissance in Europe.

"The older prayers have such power because they came from the heart," Mr. Butash says. Starvation was a real possibility, so people were truly grateful for food.

This idea is often lost in modern American culture, he says. But Lilly Turner of Crafton Heights has taught her 13-year-old son this very thing after growing up saying grace herself. "It was just a way to thank God for what we were about to receive, which we knew was truly a blessing because some children don't even get to eat."

Variations on themes

Many other Post-Gazette readers' families have also used prayer time to teach children, often using "God is great," "Bless us, O Lord" or other common prayers.

But some families have personalized these perennial favorites.

A few examples:

• After the Shaginaw family of Ross says "Bless us, O Lord," daughter Amanda tacks on "God is great." Then she high-fives both parents. They believe this tradition started when Amanda was about 3 and had learned to say the prayer by herself.

"We always high-fived her when she did something we were proud of" back then, mom Susie Shaginaw says. But the tradition has never died -- even now that Amanda Shaginaw is 15.

"We usually don't do it in public," Susie Shaginaw admits with a laugh.

• For four generations, Kate Yost's family has said "God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for this food; By his hand we are fed; Give us, Lord, our daily bread."

But her grandchildren -- Sarah, 14, Hannah, 9, and Christina Yost, 7, of Kennedy -- now end it with "Give us, Lord, our daily peanut butter bread." They changed it because their grandfather, Kate's husband Bill, also of Kennedy, teased them about how much they love peanut butter.

• Liz Buchanan of Highland Park, husband Jack, and children Lily, 8, Tess, 6, and Beck, 4, say "God is great" also. Afterwards, in a tradition passed down by Jack Buchanan's grandmother, they squeeze each others' hands three times to signify "I love you."

"It's great because we can be walking down the street, and I can squeeze their hands three times, and they know what I mean," Liz Buchanan says.

• Rev. James H. Wente of Bethel Park will offer a choice of memorized graces to his four children and nine grandchildren around the Thanksgiving table, including the Johnny Appleseed grace with "turkey" substituted for "apple seed." But his favorite is one he learned years ago at Canterbury Ecumenical Summer School in England: "For food to eat, those who prepare it, health to enjoy it, and friends to enjoy it, we thank you, Good Lord."

• After reciting "Bless us, O Lord," Amanda Murphy's McCandless family tacks on a second blessing geared toward their children, ages 3 to 9: "We thank you for the food we eat; we love our bread, we love our butter, and most of all, we love each other."

• Adam Parrish, 8, of Swissvale, also says the "Bless us, O Lord" grace -- in Japanese, as he learned it in his third-grade class at St. Maurice Catholic School in Forest Hills.

• Merle Pastrick Linn of Pleasant Hills prefers using "Bless us, O Lord" without any alterations, noting that the family was once part of a World Youth Day when participants said this grace in four different countries in four different languages.

"I love when I go to the movies or watch a show on TV and they use the same prayer as my family has prayed all my life."

Around the family table

"Bless This Food" author Mr. Butash, though Catholic, has a less favorable memory of the traditional Catholic prayer.

"It's like an old mantra," he says, firing off "Bless-us-O-Lord-and-these-thy-gifts" in a fast monotone as he remembers it from childhood. "It became an audio blur. We never concentrated on it."

He hopes his book will help families to make mealtime meaningful as they pass the book around and select prayers, with even children participating.

Of course, some families -- the roughly 36 percent who do not pray before meals -- might prefer to bypass such activity. Some, like Bill Aloe of Highland Park, are not religious but participate anyway when grace is said at social gatherings: "I certainly have no problem with not only participating but respectfully honoring my family members."

For Bill Kaszycki of West Elizabeth, president of the Center for Inquiry Community of Pittsburgh, a secular humanist organization, saying grace is more offensive, and he tries to avoid it. On Thanksgiving, he will make a short speech of thankfulness for the farm workers, food processors, store workers and others who made the dinner possible.

Mr. Butash, however, contends that most families would assent to pray if given the chance. "I think humankind is far more spiritual than the media portrays them to be."

He writes in the book's introduction, "Today, the notion of the family is under siege by a barrage of social ills.... The family food blessing is a perfect and reverent way for the family to experience a direct kinship with the Almighty."

It also encourages togetherness, he writes. "A circle of friends is the ultimate blessing."

Readers' prayers

Many Post-Gazette readers' families already pray together in a non-rote fashion without the aid of books.

Stephanie Lewand of Highland Park says her family, including four children ages 1 to 11, lights a candle and prays for special requests, such as friends and family with special needs, soldiers and their families, and the president.

"Sometimes the prayers are very solemn and other times the kids bang their silverware on plates and turn the prayer into a song -- often sounds like hip-hop," Lewand says. "You just never know what's going to happen!"

One of Vandergrift resident Polly Ceraso's frequent prayers before dinner includes thankfulness to the Lord not only for her food, but also for the ability to eat it. Why so thankful for a common bodily function? Twelve years ago, her husband received his nourishment via a feeding tube for about three months because he wasn't able to swallow.

For David and Kathia Marks and son Joseph, 17, of Duquesne, praying before a meal is a chance to reflect on their blessings. They often include current events and requests to help family and friends.

"With 1,300 homes in San Diego gone and thousands dying in Iraq, we have more blessings than we deserve here," David Marks says.

He specifies that he's not a Christian. He has Jewish and Roman Catholic family background and was raised in the United Church of Christ, which he still attends though he describes his life as a path of "moving from religion to spirituality." Prayer at mealtime, however, remains an important part of family life.

"The family that prays together focuses on what is real."

Rebecca Sodergren is an Oakwood freelance writer. You can reach her by e-mailing . First Published November 15, 2007 5:00 AM


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