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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Praying Before Meals is Not Always Easy, Even for Priests...

Saying Grace by Norman Rockwell
One of the habits I have gotten my family used to is praying before every meal, especially when we are together.

I'll be honest, it's not something that I necessarily grew up doing but wanted to establish the practice for my kids.

Many years ago, a friend told me a story about an experience he had with his family one night, while having dinner at a restaurant. 

A family that was very unlike them walked into the eatery.  They were wearing beat up jeans and ratty t-shirts, had long and disheveled hair, the man was unshaven, and both parents were sporting tattoos.

My friends says that, in his mind, he was already judging them and started getting concerned about whether they might start using foul language or behaving ornery.  He felt uncomfortable.

Then, he looked over and they were holding hands and saying grace.

My friend says he felt ashamed.  Here he was feeling high and mighty, making prejudgements because of the way they looked, and he was humbled by their faith; a faith that he was too embarrassed to show with his own family in a crowded restaurant.

I have never forgotten that story.

I recently got an email from my boss with a blog by a beloved local Miami priest, named Fr. Guillermo Garcia, better known as Fr. Willie, who had a similar experience to that of my friend.

During a recent trip to New York, Fr. Willie had met some old high school friends that live in the city at a local deli for lunch.  When their meal was served, there was an awkward moment.  He writes:
As a priest I always experience that uncomfortable moment before eating a meal with others that is brought about by the insecurity of whether we should say a prayer or not. It’s uncomfortable because I don’t want others to feel awkward having to bow their heads and make the sign of the cross in a public place, especially a place like New York City.

So there we sat, awkwardly waiting in silence for someone to make the first move. Unable to bear the discomfort much longer I boldly decided to act. I looked down at my hot pastrami sandwich and took a bite. Immediately the tension was relaxed. The others at the table proceeded to pick up their sandwiches and gorge on the deli delights brought to us by the culinary expertise of New Yorkers.

Later that day, as they made their way through a busy street, he noticed a bearded older man in a skullcap placing a mat on the floor and kneeling for his afternoon prayers, as the sun was setting, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the major metropolis.

Fr. Willie writes:
And then I was uncomfortable again.

There were hundreds of people walking the sidewalk on that busy weekday afternoon who paused to watch this little old man as he offered his prayer in the heart of the city. Some of them were probably angered at his public display of faith, some of them probably thought he was a fanatic like the ones who flew airplanes into buildings just a few blocks away, and some of them probably just laughed.

But I was uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because just a few minutes earlier I had allowed an awkward moment determine how and if I expressed my conviction of faith. Uncomfortable because I had failed to thank God for the meal I had received, because I had failed to teach a lesson to the alumni, and because I was too worried about my own comfort and not worried enough about my faith. Uncomfortable because I recognized that my courage didn’t measure up to the courage of this little old man in the skullcap.

What a lesson I learned. A life of faith is not about comfort and ease, but about conviction and courage. It is a call to give witness to all people, at all time, no matter what the circumstance, no matter where the place. Even in New York City.
Thus, my friend and Fr. Willie share the same story.

If the least I can do is to pray with my family before meals, even at the risk of being seen in public, like the disheveled tattooed family and the bearded old man with the skullcap had the courage and conviction to do, then that is what I will do.

Yet, the challenge for me is no longer saying grace with my family, which is now expected and safe.  In order to get out of my comfort zone and give witness to my faith, as Fr. Willie suggested, it means I would have to live my faith in everything I do, including praying before meals with friends. 

Unfortunately, during a recent company Christmas luncheon, all I could muster was to say grace in silence.  I still have a long way to go...

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