Family Dinner

6th century mosaic, Last Supper; Ravenna. christianiconography.info

…when Jesus wanted to explain to His followers what the meaning of his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal. —  N. T. Wright

In many cases, parents come home exhausted, not wanting to talk, and many families no longer even share a common meal. Distractions abound, including an addiction to television. This makes it all the more difficult
for parents to hand on the faith to their children. A family that almost never eats together, or that never speaks at the table but looks at the television or the smartphone, is hardly a family. Sitting at table for the family dinner, sharing our meal and the experiences of our day, is a fundamental image of togetherness and solidarity. — Pope Francis

When Patti and I got married and had children, I began to learn things good, bad and indifferent about myself that I was never really aware of before. When you live with people 24/7, they see things; you see things; and you begin to unearth patterns of thinking and behavior that often stem from your family of origin that, while you were single, must have been dormant.

One of those patterns I became aware of was my gut level aversion to sitting down for a family meal. That had not been, for the most part, a habit of my own childhood. So I preferred to eat alone, efficiently, in haste and with minimal interaction. But my wife insisted that regular family meals be a part of our new family life. Though I subscribed in theory to the idea, my neuro-pathways had been so deeply etched by lifelong habits that each meal became for me a hardship; a scourguing; an inner battle between a good idea and an ingrained habit. The Good Idea said, “remain with us, for evening is near” (Luke 24:29); the Ingrained Habit said, “he immediately went out, and it was night” (John 13:30).

I intellectually “got” that the family meal was meant to serve as a focal point of communion, unity, conversation, bonding, story telling, schedule planning and building a common vision of who we are. And I quickly began to understand the many ways it served as the most important means of communicating the fact that love means enjoying idle time with one another. This was new for me. I often prayed for grace to overcome my desire to flee the table, and worked to restrain my selfish protests to my wife that we get a reprieve from this form of culinary torture. My deep-seated aversion to this practice seemed impervious to the inroads of my lofty sentiments.

But I recall noticing, after about four years relentless daily fidelity to daily meals, there was a subtle change at work in me. I remember specifically mentioning it to Patti one day. While there was no one “wow” moment where I was suddenly transformed, I began to feel more and more at home at the table, less restless. Not a pacific state of being, but more natural feeling.

At around the ten-year mark, though, I do remember very clearly one specific event. My wife had announced that we would have a “casual” dinner, so everyone could eat when and where they wanted. To my shock, I felt sad. I wanted to sit and eat and talk. It was a moment of genuine surprise, and I laughed out loud! I realized at that moment, after ten years of fidelity to my wife’s marvelous vision of family unity around a table, I had become a different man with a different vision. After 20 years of practice, it’s still not a perfectly consistent disposition. I’m sure it will never be. But something genuinely new had come into being within me, grace at work through my family had carved some fresh neural pathways. I wrote in my journal the next day:

What a giant victory of insignificance for me. Seems so small, but it is monumental. Patti obligated me to do the right thing for the sake of our family. My grandfather said to me, “If you want virtue, fake it till you get it.” Jesus said, “Only the one who does the will of the Father” walks into the Kingdom of love; into the family of God [cf Matt. 7:21]. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for commanding the Sabbath rest, when we cease work and focus on being-with over doing-for. Thank you for obligating us through Mother Church weekly to the Eucharistic feast. There we learn the beauty of wasting time together with you, O Banquet Host, Father-forever and Lover of Mankind.

Here’s my biblical meditation on this: “But they urged Jesus, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (Luke 24:29-31).

7 comments on “Family Dinner

  1. Maureen B.M. says:

    Tom,
    I have not been following your posts for a while. Today ( New Years Eve) the Lord pulled me back to hear your words and thoughts. I am grateful for your time love and dedication to your posts. As I caught up on each post I realized how much I missed your deep reflections and how that enlightens me in my faith journey.
    One of my resolutions for 2017 is to get back to reading your reflections. I thank God for your gifts of knowledge,wisdom and understanding of our faith.
    I appreciate the way you are able to reach out through your posts to teach and form us.
    Thank you always for being part of my on going faith journey.
    You are the BEST!
    Wishing you , Patti and the children a wonderful Christmas season and a Happy, Healthy New Year!
    Elizabeth says Hi!
    Your Sister In Christ,
    Maureen

  2. Nos says:

    Brownie your the best I couldn’t agree more… your brother in Christ nos.

  3. Judy Svendsen says:

    Tom, I was blessed to grow up in a family with dinners together. We tried to continue them through the girls childhood. It was hard with sports,activities, and Steve’s job until he retired. Dinners are a lot different around here with everyone gone now. I look forward to the college breaks when everyone is home for dinner. They don’t seem complete unless Abby and Ethan join us. Last night we were missing one, but it was nice to have the majority of us together. I always look forward to those meals.

  4. Nos says:

    Judy S. Same boat different oar. Although all the birthdays and major catholic holidays are celebrated with the whole crew all 17 of them , the grandbabies take center stage and it’s wonderful… thank you for reminding me how blessed we are to be given these Times to share each other’s love … nos

  5. DismasDancing says:

    My dear Brother Tom. Although I have not commented on your postings for quite some time, I have been closely following them. Enjoy all of them; but this one lighted the “you’re-a-‘winner'” sign and opened up the memory treasure trove to the chapter in my book of life entitled “Priceless Family Happenings”.

    As far back as I can remember (nearly 68 of my 71 years), my extended family on both sides of my parental lines were devoted to family. It certainly wasn’t always “pretty” in the normal day-to-day routines I observed while growing up. But when the entire clan gathered for special occasions, whether on a Minnesota farm or at the white sands of Pensacola Beach, comity and selflessness ruled the day and everyone went home smiling.

    As my five siblings and I grew up, our Mom and Dad insisted on that same level of comity and selflessness while at our supper table every evening. Unless there was a special occasion and until we began to wade into our adult roles, we (Mom and the six kids) waited the arrival of Dad before any of us began to eat. I would like to say that we never experienced conflict around that table, for we definitely had our share of them, especially as each of us transited the difficult tween and teen years. Regardless of the mood of the day, however, each meal was an opportunity to learn how to argue fairly and without malice, or discuss happenings of a personal nature and get timely wisdom from parents (sometimes even from siblings!!). Often, it took some hard knocks to make us understand what the rules were. But learn we did, experiencing some glorious moments of coming to understand what being a citizen of the human race was all about, contributing to the betterment of both ourselves and those with whom we would come into contact throughout our lives.

    Dad was an amazing man, having served in the South Pacific as a naval officer during WWII and again as the administrative officer of the Navy Test Pilot Squadron during the Korean War. Mom served as a literal “Rosie the Riveter”. A svelte 5’2″ and petite in stature, she was able to crawl into the wings of aircraft being repaired and hold the inside rivets being used to fasten the metal skin to the frame. Both would periodically open up to us kids and enthrall us for hours with tales of how they grew up, met, married, survived the travails of military life, war, the Great Depression, etc.

    My bride’s folks as well, while not having served in the military, were filled with tales offering a different perspective on the same period in our history. Our own 4 children were often eager to engage all four of their grandparents in conversations that would supply them with a great knowledge of “real” history that contributed to a sense of maturity that they were able to carry with them as they proceeded through their early years as military brats.

    Having been taught by our own parents the intrinsic value of doing the family things, as our own kids started “busting” the door down to join the outside world on their own, we insisted that, as a family, we would share every Sunday night as our “family meal night”. We did that for as long as we could, ending with my assignment to a final overseas tour in Seoul, South Korea. Upon being transferred to the Marine Reserve Headquarters in New Orleans in 1993, we gathered as often as we could since two of the four were married in ’94, one in ’95, and the “caboose” much later.

    For my 70th birthday, my bride and I joined our youngest at Walt Disney World for a week, celebrating that milestone at their home and in the Disney campground. As we chowed down on some great-tasting tenderloin, our history of family meals became the topic of a rather extended conversation. Great discussion of just how much our gatherings meant to both M and me AND the kids, even though they often balked at the “necessity” of Sunday evening meals at Mom and Dad’s. The kids’ birthday gift is priceless. It is a compendium of random thoughts about our family as reflected in the eyes of each child’s mind. The “poster” and the list of comments is entitled, “70 random reasons why we love you.” That is the star atop the Christmas tree; the star that “…stopped and stayed, right over the place where Jesus laid;” for me, a true “Star of Wonder:” the star that is the capstone answering the oft-asked question, “Did I do it right?”

    Your post is spot on and, I hope, will inspire Moms and Dads everywhere to spend more time with their kids over a meal, especially the evening meal. True love grows in that garden. Many, like yourself, will have to “force” themselves to learn how to do that. In the end, however, as Jesus tells us, for those who persevere and “walk the walk”, there are rewards that will literally knock your socks off and make every minute worth whatever effort one might need to exert to learn how to love “for real”.

    Please note new email. Will send some info on my blog status under separate cover. God bless you, love you always, and keep you safe in all your endeavors.

    DD

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