…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).