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The River of God

On saying grace before meals.

The word “grace” is one of the loveliest in the English language, and also a beautiful name for a woman. Before you have ever had its many meanings explained to you, you know as you hear it that it speaks of something good. Yes, I know that actions can sometimes be done “with a bad grace,” which ought to be a contradiction in terms. But instead it is a paradox. The man who acts with a bad grace is behaving badly when he knows he should be behaving well. A bad grace is no grace at all. But it draws attention to the need for a good grace. When I was small, the word was most associated with the memory of Grace Darling, the Northumberland lighthouse keeper’s daughter who in 1838 rowed through stormy seas to rescue the drowning passengers of a sinking ship. Her story has faded out of mind now, but it was still very much alive in my childhood. Somehow I do not think it would have endured so long if she had been called Agatha Tonks.

But the word also pushed its way into my life when I attended, for two interesting years, a Cathedral choir school in the serene little city of Chichester. I should point out that I sing like a donkey, and so was not actually a choirboy. This establishment had dormitories dating from 1492, reached by forbidding stone steps and low archways which never let you forget how old they were. The institution stretched back to before the Reformation, and seemed quite keen to return to that age. Chichester had by then become a stronghold of Anglo-Catholicism, often considerably more Catholic than the Pope. There was incense in the Cathedral itself, and we always ate fish on Friday. There, for the first time, I encountered grace before and after meals, in Latin. I half-understood this, as I had already begun on my conjugations and declensions. Later I moved to another more Protestant school in the West Country where meals (except, for some reason, breakfast) routinely began with “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful” and ended with “For what we have received, etc.” I remember an outbreak of snobbish mirth directed against a visiting cricket team from a big-city Plymouth school, who revealed that their regular grace was “For every cup and plateful, may the Lord make us truly grateful.” This has the clumsy trivial banality of so much modern liturgy but is certainly memorable. I will never forget it, for sure. But nor would I use it by choice.

The question of grace before or after meals faded from my life for many atheist and secular years until my wife (raised as an atheist by a Communist father and radical mother) and I were confronted with the problem of what to teach our children. A series of revolutions had come crashing through our lives, previously filled only with ambition, long days of hard work, wanderings in foreign countries and too much wine. At some point in all this, I and then my wife found an insatiable need for what I would now call the authority of God. We weren’t going to face this business alone. Anyone with any sort of upbringing presumably experiences this moral need in their lives if they become parents. Birth itself is like a painful war, ending in victory. But your victory has given you a new and demanding kingdom to govern. What powers do you now have? What are the limits on them? To whom are you accountable, and what is good? You are no longer responsible only to yourselves and each other for how you behave. You are observed, and will be remembered after you are dead, in your private moments. You have to stop doing some things, hide some things and start doing others. I will not go into details, but one of the things we felt a strong need to do, quite soon, was to say grace before eating. We groped for what to say.

An American Episcopal priest, realizing that our religious roots were confused, and conceding that we loved wine, urged us to turn to the Psalms, and especially the fifteenth verse of the one hundred fourth Psalm, in the Coverdale version: “That he may bring food out of the earth, and wine that maketh glad the heart of man: and oil to make him a cheerful countenance, and bread to strengthen man’s heart.” You can construct a pretty potent grace out of that, and it was for many years the foundation of what we tried to say before meals (though oddly, not breakfast). After a while, we felt emboldened by its beauty to say it when Godless guests were at our table. They could hardly despise it, as it was so beautiful, and it might touch their hearts.

The next crisis came rather unexpectedly when we went to live in Moscow and felt we absolutely could not hide our belief when out in the officially Godless city. Other guests at the various Georgian, Azerbaijani, and other restaurants which lightened life in the Soviet capital of the time did not take long to realize what we were doing in their midst, despite the language barrier. Sometimes it felt a little like Norman Rockwell’s clever 1951 painting set in a railroad station restaurant somewhere in America. A Mennonite woman and her son say grace, inside a shield of serenity, as two young louts smoking next to them look on in puzzlement, and the rest of the people stuck in the grubby unloved room do much the same. What can this thing mean?

I am not an especially virtuous person, as anyone who knows me will attest, and am capable of astounding acts of gracelessness (I committed a couple in the last two days which have already started to make me wince), but the regular saying of grace, in the midst of normal life, must surely keep me from being even worse.

I have the great joy of living in Oxford and am occasionally invited to college high tables for dinner, where I am sometimes saddened by how perfunctory grace has become in lovely paneled halls clearly built to express the glory of God. But sometimes I am not, especially in those places where dinner is preceded by Choral Evensong—the loveliest service of the church—and occasionally by a full Latin grace sung from a gallery. It is true that grandeur is not necessary. The simple “For these and all thy gifts O Lord, we give thee most humble and hearty thanks” has enormous power in it. But if you are in search of something bound to move all hearers, the Psalms offer two other especially potent graces (and probably more, which I have not found yet). The first, from the one hundred forty-fifth runs, “The eyes of all wait upon thee, O Lord: and thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest thine hand: and fillest all things living with plenteousness.” And the sixty-fifth, if you have time, runs, “Thou visitest the earth and blessest it: thou makest it very plenteous. The river of God is full of water: thou preparest their corn, for so thou providest for the earth. Thou waterest her furrows, thou sendest rain into the little valleys thereof; thou makest it soft with the drops of rain, and blessest the increase of it. Thou crownest the year with thy goodness.” 

This is only a small part of the riches of one of the greatest poems in the English language. In a grubby café or a great clanging city devoid of any sign of faith, these words have the power to summon beauty and gratitude into the bleakest place. If somebody is staring when we say them, well, let him. He might see something to his advantage.