"Grace" is a complex and puzzling word. It means lots of things. In everyday usage it can mean elegance, beauty, an effortlessness of movement. Theologically, it can mean living in God's love. It's also a prayer before meals. More later about that.
Theologically, most Christians agree that grace is free. We don't earn it or deserve it. Scott Peck tells the story of a Yankee businessman driving through the south. After an all night drive, he pulled into a diner to order breakfast. The waitress brought him his plate of ham and eggs. When he got it, he saw this heap of white stuff on the side. "What's that?" he asked.
"Thems grits," said the waitress.
"I didn't order them," he said.
Indignantly, the waitress huffed, "You don't order grits. Thems just comes!" Grace is like that. We don't order grace either; it just shows up -- unexpectedly.
But back to that prayer before meals, here's G. K Chesterton's insight. "You may say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in the ink."
Chesterton, of course, is talking about prayers of gratitude. It's what Mahatma Gandhi said, "Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness [and need]. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart." I doubt if Chesterton always "said" something before swimming, dancing or writing. Sometimes perhaps he did, but often, I'd bet, he gratefully prayed without words.
Remember Shakespeare in Hamlet? "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go." Jesus was clear on this. He too didn't like the emphasis on words. "When you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think they will be heard for their many words" (Mt. 6:7). Words are not that important. Our thoughts are what makes prayer real.
The Franciscan priest Father Richard Rhor reminds us, "The word "prayer" has often been trivialized by making it into a way of getting what you want." Prayer is not a technique for coaxing God into giving us more stuff. It's thanking Her -- often wordlessly -- for what life is constantly giving us.
I can hear many readers loudly objecting. " Life," you say, "is also constantly giving us tragedies: wars, tornados, famines. What about them? Do you want us to be thankful for them too?" First, I'm not sure Life has given us these tragedies. To a great extent we ourselves are responsible. We produce enough food to feed the world, but our politics and greed for profits prevents distributing food to the world's starving. Many would also say that global warming, our cutting down rain forests, and our commercial reclaiming of floodplains are helping cause all these tornadoes. And wars? They certainly are of our own making. We shouldn't be too quick to blame Life -- or God. Often we have done it to ourselves.
Adversities, moreover, can teach us much. Only the saints can be thankful for them, but even we ordinary folks must admit that adversity often has made us stronger and opened up opportunities we never otherwise would have had. The loss of a job or a relationship, for example, a tragedy at the time has unfolded for many a much richer professional or personal life.
I can hear some of you again -- even louder this time. Why are you writing about prayer? There are much more important issues. What about Afghanistan? Pakistan? Yemen? Syria? The Arab Spring? Jobs and the economy? The national debt ceiling? Why don't you write about them?
Well to tell you the truth I'm sick of hearing about them. For that reason for the most part I've given up on cable TV. The second reason is that I believe in the power of prayer : even for issues like the Arab Spring. If enough of us united to pray for that, who knows? About five years ago in Washington, DC the Christian Defense Coalition organized a weeklong 24-hour prayer vigil to address Washington's growing murder rate. After that vigil, the murder rate dropped 27 percent. Remember Lord Alfred Tennyson: "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of."
But there is a huge temptation here and believers have to fight it. Prayer is not a refuge from the world. It is not a Jacuzzi in which we luxuriate comfortably in mystical bliss. We must come down from the mountain into the marketplace. As Rabindranath Tagore the Indian poet and philosopher, taught us. "Let us not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless when facing them." Or as the African proverb urges, "When you pray, move your feet."
But back to that grace before meals. Chesterton was right. We should be thankful not only for food but for everything. The hymn puts it poetically:
For flowers that bloom about our feet,
For tender grass so fresh and neat,
For song of bird and hum of bee,
For all things fair we hear or see:
Giver of all, we thank Thee.