Friday, December 31, 2010

Prayers before mealtime

Here's another blog post that I didn't publish this year. This one didn't make it because at the time I was swamped with real life things and I simply didn't have time to finish it. But at least I'm getting this published in the same month as the blog post it refers to!

One of the bloggers I’ve gotten to know the best, and had the most interaction with, is Roger Green. He blogs about an amazing variety of subjects, and is always interesting. A case in point is a recent post, “Meal Blessing QUESTION”, in which he asked about people’s blessing/prayer before mealtime. This is a particularly vexed topic for me, and possibly not for the reasons one might think.

When I was growing up, meals were preceded by a prayer—always. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t keen on that, but at dinner my dad—an ordained minister—said the prayer, and it just seemed like what was supposed to happen, regardless of what I thought about it. Sometimes my mother or a sibling or I would be called on, but usually it was my dad. I hated doing the prayer, not because of the religious stuff, but because it was a sort of public performance, and I was quite shy.

Given this automatic praying, it may be surprising that when I was a kid, my mother didn’t force me into prayer, especially if we stopped for a snack while I was with her shopping, or at one of her lunch meetings—even when it was a church group. I’d often bow my head, but pray? Not always.

I noticed that at non-religious dinners, including in restaurants, my mother didn’t overtly pray. Instead, as she told me years later, “I just pretended to be adjusting the napkin on my lap as a I said a quick, silent prayer.” That intrigued me, but I didn’t really understand why until many, many years later.

By the time high school graduation neared, my own religiousness was fading. I tried to fan the embers for more than a decade, but to no avail. As years passed, and my religiousness faded even more, I began to resent mandatory or assumed religiosity—like saying a prayer before a meal.

A few years more and I find myself in New Zealand, where many Maori traditions and practices are expressly Christian, even in a public (governmental) setting. This presented a problem for me: How do I remain true to my own beliefs while not disrespecting Maori?

Eventually, the solution in public settings was for me was to remain quiet when the prayers are said, but I don’t bow my head nor say “amen” at the end. However, I couldn’t figure out what to do when I was on the Marae: It’s like being in someone’s home, after all, and their rules apply.

And then I remembered my mother and her solution for the opposite problem.

I now look into space in front of me, slightly downward. To some, it may appear I’ve bowed my head a little, others may realise I’m not. But I still remain silent—something that’s not at all unusual considering these prayers are often done in Maori, which I don’t speak.

So my mother’s solution for practicing her religion in a public setting gave me a way to avoid participating in religious practices I don’t share. And it all began with prayers before mealtime.


Roger Owen Green said...

well, you mentioned your vexation, but thanks for the context!

Arthur Schenck said...

I wish I could've completed this at the time, but better than never!