As after-dinner conversations go, this one was not my best. One of my offspring wanted to address aspects of our family life that were a cause of discontent. High on the list —the long list — was our practice of family meals: “Why can’t we be normal?”
Apparently, ‘normal’ is the practice of allowing each person the freedom to take his or her dinner to wherever he or she wants to be, that is in front of the television, sitting at the computer screen, listening to the iPod, etc. I was told that ours is the ‘only’ family that clings to the quaint tradition of sitting down together at the same table: ‘It’s so gay!’
OK, so I didn’t react as sensitively as I should. I might teach spirituality, but this was not one of my finer spiritual moments. Upon reflection, I have to own the fact that this conversation trespassed into loaded territory for me. I have much invested — theologically, pastorally, personally — in the sacredness of the dinner table. I teach an entire unit on ‘table spirituality’; I’ve written articles about the sacredness of eating; I speak publicly about the Christian ministry of hospitality; I value my kitchen and view the cooking I do in it as a spiritual service.
All very well, I suppose. Though apparently, not every member of the family has imbibed the table’s profundity in the way I’d planned. Evidently, our daily ritual of ‘divine encounter’ is not feeling terribly divine.
Granted, if I’m honest, it doesn’t always feel that way to me either. Truthfully, our dinner table can sometimes be more an emotional hot spot than a haven of serenity and harmony. Too often, it’s the place where household tensions and conflicts and each person’s weariness are on display. The sparks might fly, but not always the ones I’d hoped for. And then, of course, there are the moments when it all feels so mundane even I have trouble recalling its significance.
Regardless, this awkward interaction left me feeling despondent. I’d failed … or at least that’s how it felt. The intensity with which these protestations were expressed caught me off guard. After all these years, is our family mealtime really that easily dismissed, that insignificant … that negative?
As I’ve mulled this over in the last week or so, I’ve had to remind myself that the spiritual and the mundane do not always count each other out, that holiness and chaos don’t always inhabit alternative galaxies. In reality, claiming something as sacred does not render it extraordinary or eternally tranquil.
It’s a bit like the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. How many times does it seem so routine as to be almost boring? Sometimes I ‘feel’ it; often I don’t. Is it any less significant to my spirituality? I don’t think so. There’s something about the routine practice of sitting down at the table together—hearing the same words, looking at the same people, praying the same prayers—that shapes who I am over time What’s more, even upon Jesus’ institution of this sacred meal, his words and actions were followed immediately by a dispute and harsh words among those at the table. This idealized moment of community was anything but serene.
In retrospect, this after-dinner conversation, as difficult as it was to have, has highlighted two things—apparently contradictory—that I think are worth holding together.
First, the sanctity of our dinner table is too important to take for granted. Frankly, I’m not ready to become a ‘normal’ household yet. I’m holding on to the daily ritual of the dinner table. In my view, it’s too valuable to surrender—one of those practices whose worth you only fully know when it’s no longer there. Just yesterday, our newspaper highlighted another study documenting the importance of the family meal table to the psychological wellbeing of adolescents. For me, the challenge is to remain an attentive host, vigilant to the presence of God, sensitive to the needs of those seated, and always ready to nurture the sacred potential of our gathering.
Second, my overwrought expectations of the table can do with a good dose of humility. Not every meal will be an epiphany. Not every moment can be profound. The impact of our daily encounters across the table— the routine, the mundane, the tension, the cross words and funny stories — is cumulative, appreciated only in retrospect. Our spirituality is shaped as much in the shadows and tensions of family life as it is in serenity and laughter. So breathe deeply, I say to myself, and let the sacredness of life take care of itself.