I grew up in a secular — verging on atheistic, in fact — household. Suddenly, over the last few months, my mother has decided to reclaim religion in her life. She’s recently begun asking if we would mind saying grace at family dinners, a suggestion that has been met with laughter and glib derision from the rest of us, myself included. Her persistence, however, has made me realize that it’s really important to her, so I suggested to my siblings and father that we should try it. Not surprisingly, they made fun of me too. They told me we shouldn’t encourage her “superstitions,” and if I don’t believe in God, then I shouldn’t put on an act. I just want to do something nice for my mom, and what’s so wrong with giving thanks for food anyway? How can I convince my family just to try it out, for her sake?
It’s the 21st century. If you still really believe having a chat with some divine being “up there” is going to make any kind of difference, what you really need is a slap in the face. I’m not stating my own belief here, I’m just putting into words what that laughter and glibness comes off as. Even though religion does seem to be making a comeback these days (see current U.S. president), it’s still easier and even hip to be a cynic and make fun of believers, apparently even if they are your own mother.
So I think it’s noble that you’ve decided to step back from your own beliefs and see another person’s point of view. The real question though, for me anyway, is how to be open-minded to your mother’s wishes to bring this ritual to your dinner table if, as the rest of your family has been so helpful in pointing out, you don’t really believe in it.
Retired United Church Reverend George James of Bracebridge, Ont., whom I contacted to get some closer-to-divine inspiration for an answer, says your suggestion to actually say the prayer yourself might be overdoing it. He doesn’t go as far as calling such a thing sacrilegious, but he does suggest the idea calls into question your own moral fabric: “I think it’s a matter of the individual’s integrity, and whether they feel they’re taking part in something they really don’t believe in just to please somebody else.” Rev. James does applaud, however, your tolerance, and says your mother should be able to say the prayer while the rest of you “at least offer a respectful silence while she does something that’s obviously meaningful to her.”
Which brings us to the fact that your family can’t seem to hold their non-God loving opinions to themselves. It’s quite childish, really. Rev. James offered this apt analogy: “I happen to believe that nationalism is a spent force and probably in many ways a destructive influence and that we should be embracing a wider vision than just love of country. But I don’t pull a hissy attack every time O Canada is sung.” I tried to imagine the extremely kind and open-minded reverend at a hockey game suddenly lashing out at the guy in the next seat as he sang the national anthem, and frankly, it was hard to do. But of course, being the extremely kind and open-minded man that he is, Rev. James followed up the statement with an admission that, while listening to the anthem, he often finds himself “strangely moved by it” in spite of his convictions.
“Who knows,” he added, “perhaps being in the presence of [someone saying grace] might touch something that rationally makes no sense.”
But sudden conversions aside, Rev. James is right that your father and siblings can make space for your mom to say grace and be respectful without being believers. In fact, if they won’t even do that on the grounds that they don’t want to “put on an act,” I would offer this wise gem from the reverend: “Prayer only becomes prayer when the individual regards it as such.” Use this aphorism and make sure you say it with a very sincere gravity and then walk away. My hunch is they won’t have a snappy comeback this time.
The best thing that can happen if your family allows your mom to say grace at the table is a greater sense of family cohesion. Your mom will be chatting with God while the rest of you patiently — and atheistically — show her proper respect. Everyone will feel all warm inside, and at that point, whether or not anyone believes in God doesn’t really matter. It’s the perfect one-of-a-kind ritual that defines our modern day DIY society. Go forth and consider yourselves religiously avant garde.
…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, Jim Mac, after a November 27, 2007 article by Micah Toub in The Globe And Mail