“A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues.”
     — Cicero

Thank you letter from my niece's son, age 8

I hope the art of writing thank you notes is not dead.  We live with so much abundance, I wonder if we are taking gifts too much for granted.  I grew up in a large family where money was tight.  Gifts were rare and cherished.  A hand-written thank you note is the least we can do to express our appreciation for gifts, small and large.  A note of thanks  honors both the giver and the gift.

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Saying Grace

November 24, 2010

I just love what Jerome Segal says about saying grace before meals in “Graceful Living,” his essay in a book about simple living called Less is More by Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska.  His words are especially appropriate to this day before our country’s Thanksgiving holiday.  I know I plan to keep his words in mind when I sit down with family to our Thanksgiving feast.

Saying grace

“Consider the act of saying grace before a meal.  Here the core is an attitude of thanksgiving, of appreciation.  The focus is on recognizing the full value of what one has, rather than lamenting what one does not.  While one can mouth the words, one cannot authentically begin a meal with a benediction of grace and at the same time maintain a sense of dissatisfaction with what one has.  There is a certain peaceful contentment that is part of genuine thankfulness.
     When one does approach a meal gracefully, one can look in two different directions.  One can consider what one has against the ‘perspective of less,’ contrasting what one has with what others do not.  This means seeing things against the backdrop of poverty, of hunger, of times and places of suffering and deprivation.  Here the act of consumption is also a moment to see oneself and one’s situation within the broader perspective of human experience and, so seen, to be thankful for what one has and more aware of what one has been lucky enough not to have experienced.  Thus, one is thankful to have something to eat when others have starved.  And one is thankful to have friends and loved ones to share the meal with when others are lonely, and when there may come a day when those friends and loved ones are gone.
     Then there is another perspective, one that does not take its power from the contrast with deprivation and suffering, but rather seeks to put us in touch with the abundance in front of us.  Here the appreciation of the food rests not on an awareness of hunger, but on how good this food is, of how remarkable a thing is the simple potato or the diverse ingredients of a salad or the crust on a good bread.  And then to look around the table and take stock of those who are there, valuing them not against the possibility of loneliness but in virtue of the richness they provide.
     Here appreciativeness goes beyond thankfulness, to being open to the values that are inherent in something.  This kind of appreciativeness requires a certain kind of experiencing.  It is not primarily a matter of intellectual assent, but of an openness, of an accessibility to what is valuable, be it another person, a piece of music, a work of art, a spring day or a great ball game.  Often such appreciation is most present when we are young, when the world is fresh.  As we age and as we get into our harnesses, our ability to take pleasure dulls.  In other contexts, appreciation is not automatically present but is the result of learning and exposure:  for example, the appreciation of art and music, especially if it comes from other cultures.
     This appreciativeness is an orientation that we bring (or more likely, fail to bring) to any of the things of ordinary life.  Thus, with respect to food and meals, we may be oblivious to the difference between good cooking and bad, oblivious to the pleasure of eating off a handsome dining table versus a card table.  We may be blind to the value of those we eat with, blind to those we live with, blind to those we parent.
     Yet for this second kind of appreciation to be valid, there has to be something there to be appreciated.  What if the tomatoes taste like rubber, the food is overcooked, the bread is dismal, the spouse is in a foul mood and the children are obnoxious?  Where is gracefulness then?  What is there that is worthy of appreciation?
     Thus, in this second sense, a graceful meal requires more than the appropriate attitude; it also involves the presence of a qualitative richness, what we might call ‘good fortune,’ so long as we do not view ourselves as passive with respect to whether such fortune is before us.  This links to another dimension of the act of saying grace.  The grace ritual requires that we take a moment before digging in, a moment of pause, a moment of quiet that gives a certain dignity to the meal.  It separates it from what precedes it.  In spirit, of not in practice, the initial benediction establishes a space that pervades the entire meal.  When we have a meal in this way, we do not wolf down our food.  We set the meal apart; the benediction allows us to break with the hectic pace of a busy day.  To an extent, it turns the meal into a ceremony.  As such, it is not only a space worthy of appreciation; it is a space worthy of taking the time and energy to create properly.”
     — Jerome Segal, “Graceful Living”