Growing up, dinnertime was a non-negotiable, sacred time. Everyone was expected to be there, period. No excuses. No phone calls. And definitely no television. Except on the super-rare occasion when my parents would wheel the TV in front of the dinner table and we would watch a movie together, thereby making the table the central focus and not the TV. Even when Dad would have to work late, which was somewhat common in the early days of the business he and Grandpa started, he would still come home for dinner and then return to work. (Thankfully, the office was and still is only a mile and a half away from my parents’ home.)
As a family, we were not much of talkers, at least I don’t remember having many deep conversations at the table. But the table was still a secure place and a sacred space. If I had to characterize our family, we were the family that always had breakfast and dinner together. So, even though I cannot recall conversations around the table, the dinners engrained within me a deep sense of belonging, security and most of all love.
I have recently been reading For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy by Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox scholar and priest. After his discussion on the sacrament of the Eucharist, he discusses the sacrament of time: our fundamental reality by which we experience the wonder of both life and death. Within his discussion of time, he writes about the daily offices, the seven set periods of time throughout the day in which Christians, most often monks and priests, have traditionally prayed.
Schmemann begins by discussing Vespers, which are evening prayers, which may at first seem odd since Vespers occur at what we consider the end of the day. But for Schmemann, Vespers signal the beginning, “and this means in the ‘rediscovery,’ in adoration and thanksgiving, of the world as God’s creation” (pp. 73-74). His understanding of Vespers is grounded in the Creation account of Genesis 1 in which each day is marked off, “And there was evening, and there was morning” (Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). He writes:
“The Church takes us, as it were, to that first evening on which man, called by God to life, opened his eyes and saw what God in his love was giving to him, saw all the beauty, all the glory of the temple in which he was standing and rendered thanks to God. And in this thanksgiving he became himself” (p. 74, emphasis original).
Therefore, one of the purposes of Vesper prayers is to reorient ourselves to the inherent goodness and beauty of creation. To simply stand in awe of the gift of creation.
As I read Schmemann’s discussion of Vespers, I began to wonder if a connection could be made between Vespers and the Family Meal.
The connection begins and is most easily seen when we open the meal with prayer, commonly known as giving thanks. In one of his other books, The Eucharist, Schmemann writes, “Thanksgiving is the power that transforms desire and satisfaction, love and possession, into life, that fulfils everything in the world, given to us by God, into knowledge of God and communion with him” (The Eucharist, pp. 188-189). Beginning each family dinner with prayer orients us to a posture of thanksgiving and gratitude towards God for all that he has given us. Or as Norman Wirzba writes,
“When eating is enfolded within the language and grammar of grace, and when food itself is experienced as the delectable manifestation of God’s abounding and incomprehensible love, then the opportunity exists for people to dine with God as ‘the fountain of true delight’” (Food & Faith, p. 180).
Giving thanks for the food reminds us that we are dependent on God for what is before us. While much human skill and ingenuity went in to putting the food before us, God was and is ultimately responsible. I am sometimes in awe of the variety of delectable food God has given purely for our enjoyment. Why do we need so many varieties of apples, tomatoes, potatoes? Did God give us red, green, yellow and orange bell peppers simply so that our food could be more colorful and to remind us of his extravagant love towards us?
Infusing the Family Meal with a Vesper like atmosphere would not stop with the giving of thanks. If the first great theme of Vespers is the reorienting of ourselves to the beauty and grandeur of creation, then the second theme, according to Schmemann, is the darkness and sin of this world. The family meal accordingly should be a place where the hurts, pains, and ugliness of creation are acknowledged. Even though the Family Meal should be a time of celebration and goodness, we cannot also hide from the fact that we are still in exile from Paradise, that all is not right with the world. Starting with the husband and wife, and extending to the children, there must be the freedom to acknowledge the hurts and sins of the day in openness and without shame. It is not easy to cultivate this kind of culture within the Family Meal, but I believe that eating together has the power to create a space where members of a family can feel open to share. As we eat the same food, we realize the level of the playing field – that at the core, we are all the same, humans created in the incredible image of God but who constantly sin and are in need of redemption.
Redemption is the third great theme of Vespers according to Schmemann. He writes, “The world is at its evening because the One bringing the final meaning to the world has come; in the darkness of this world, the light of Christ reveals again the true nature of things” (p. 75). As the darkness of sin is acknowledged, we move to remind ourselves that sin is not the final answer, but that through Christ’s death, death and darkness have been robbed of their power over us.
I don’t think these themes have to be acknowledged in a formal way every dinner, for part of the beauty of the Table is the spontaneity that occurs when people gather. Especially with children, I want to allow space for them to be kids and not impose a rigid structure when what they might want is to be slightly goofy.
I am not familiar with the history and liturgy of Vespers, which is why I plan on doing some more reading about its historical and theological development. Some friends have already suggested some books that I have requested from the library.
In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts. Have you been able to incorporate an attitude of prayer and worship within your Family Meal? What practices have worked? What ideas have not worked so well?