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The saving grace is simple, common prayer


It all starts with gratitude," advised a Jesuit acquaintance during a period of confusion and doubt in my life. I have always been open to prayer, even if it has sometimes seemed like a mysterious, otherworldly activity, too mystical to be rooted in reality, too ... well, pious. But even in my confusion I could manage to give thanks for the basics in my life: a roof over my head, an education, freedom.

Now, diligently engaged in the daily routine of feeding, clothing, bathing, chauffeuring, disciplining and yes, once in a while, thoroughly enjoying my children, these words come back to me. I don't think either my spouse or I are what anyone would describe as pious. Yet very early in our marriage we developed a ritual of holding hands and giving thanks each night before our meal. We do so when guests are present, even if they don't share our faith. Our prayers are pretty nondenominational, and so far nobody has refused to hold hands or stormed out of our dining room in protest.

Although every prayer is not heavy, deep and real, it is the repetition of the act and the symbolism it carries that makes our mealtime thanks so important. The children usually go around the table and name everyone present. Sometimes they include people who aren't present, sometimes pets or dead pets. Sometimes the "beautiful food" rates a mention -- or the weather (they are Minnesotans!).

Here's a snapshot of what really happens at our table. One recent evening I come to the dinner table at the end of my rope. It's been a long day and there are still many tasks ahead before I can drop into bed. The last-minute pre-meal tension crackles through the air between my husband and me as we dart around each other opening the refrigerator, reaching for the lettuce or the butter dish, slamming a cupboard shut, grabbing a handful of silverware. The kids play their parts -- whining that they like the other kind of chicken, not this kind, and they absolutely won't eat the spinach.

At the very moment I begin to revert to "escape mode" and wish I'd gone to journalism school and become a war correspondent, my six-year-old spills his milk. I explode, "Why can't you be more careful?" and throw a cloth in his direction, ordering him to clean the mess. I return to the table with a black cloud over my head to serve the meal and say grace.

I wish I could write that one of the children turned the mood around with a funny comment or some precocious insightful reflection that put these stressful moments in perspective. No, it was your basic, "Thanks for the food and the people at this table." But we said it and we meant it, and maybe that most essential expression of gratitude is what my Jesuit acquaintance referred to. For one moment we stopped the madness of running, planning, doing, and it became the calming moment. I felt my blood pressure drop, my face cool down.

I have begun to introduce other ideas about prayer to my children. I have suggested they can pray to Jesus or their guardian angel to ask for help when they feel sad or scared. We'll eventually get to the formal prayers, the Hail Mary, the Our Father (and Mother), the Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi and my favorite prayer of desperation: "Lord, I'm not sure if what I do is pleasing to you or if any of this makes sense but I'm really hoping you think it does."

But ultimately, counting your blessings can be the most accessible prayer for many of us. I feel like a spoiled child when I consider the abundance of my life and the incredible advantages I have experienced as a white, relatively wealthy North American. When I reach out to my Creator in thanksgiving, I am humbled by the idea of the suffering, poverty and alienation of so many human beings. We can scarcely imagine the reality -- and few of us want to -- of people oppressed economically, politically, religiously in all corners of the world.

A number of years ago I attended a talk and slide presentation by a School Sister of Notre Dame in Cincinnati, who had traveled in Central America. She shared stories of people living in great poverty but with great faith and a profound sense of eucharistic community. She described a village liturgy without bread or wine to consecrate. Instead, someone produced a couple of precious oranges to peel and divide among the assembly. "That was truly Eucharist," she said.

My dictionary indicates that the root of the word eucharist is from the Greek eucharistos, "gratitude, thanks." May my family dinner table and yours always be a place of Eucharist. It all begins there.

Kris Berggren lives in Minnesota.

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 1997