This article was originally published in Sword & Spade magazine.
by Charles Rumore
The family has a regular opportunity for festivity: the evening meal. This daily event encapsulates all the elements intrinsic to authentic festival – temporal and spiritual purpose, preparation, community, rest, rejuvenation, reflection, conversation, and, above all, participation. Like a true festival, it is a time set aside from the rest that draws its substance from the day’s work, receives it gratefully, and is nourished and sent back into the ordinary parts of the day. We are often encouraged to restore family meal time, but we are rarely reminded of the reasons why. Modern culture has seduced us by the efficiency of fast food and prepared meals but it has left us craving the benefits of the daily festival of family dinner.
There is an old saying that distinguishes two types of people in the world “those who eat to live, and those who live to eat.” We can save the arguments of temperance for another time, but for the sake of this issue, I would argue that, with a proper order to our day, the family meal should become the routine festival we look forward to with great anticipation. This attitude is not based purely on satiating our appetites, but rather the celebration of our completed work and the communion of our family. In his encyclical Familiaris Consortio, Pope Saint John Paul II reiterates the teaching of the Second Vatican Council: “Since the Creator of all things has established the conjugal partnership as the beginning and basis of human society, [the family is] the first and vital cell of society.” The family meal recalls this truth, celebrates it, and nourishes the bodies and spirits of those who participate in it.
In the same manner that Sunday serves as an end and a beginning to our week, the family meal should serve as a small sabbath to our day – a transition from our day of work to a night of leisure, with the festival of mealtime aptly situated to bring family together before our final rest of the day. To draw the whole family in, the preparation of the meal can be shared and not become merely a burden for one person to carry. In fact the preparation itself should be seen as a part of the festival – a time for conversation. Just as Advent, a time of penance, has a certain sense of hopeful anticipation, preparing the family meal should be seen as a time of joyful work for and with the family. Of course this is a time to hear about everyone’s day, but this should be seen as an opportunity for engagement more than as a monotonous debriefing of events.
This festival will not be restored by command. On the contrary, it can only be achieved by the deliberate reordering of the family culture. In my experience, this painful process often requires months and years of careful evaluation and changes to the commitments which compete for this valuable time slot. But this is all the more reason to elevate this seemingly mundane task to the level of festival. We should work our lives around the celebration of family, not the other way around.
The blessing before the meal is integral to the festivity. It drives out demons, acknowledges from whom our gifts come, and unites the family members to our Father’s providence. It is an affirmation of the good in our material reality and its relation to the praise of God. This simple prayer, so often said in haste, sets the tone for the impending feast. It is incumbent on us as men to consecrate this time by a sincere and devout prayer.
And, having received our bodily nourishment from God’s bounty and rejuvenating our spirits with sincere conversation, the family festival prepares us for more worthy forms of leisure in the remaining hours of the evening.
If the family is indeed the “first and vital cell of society,” then we must nurture it. Just as a relationship with Christ is impossible without the interaction of prayer, a relationship with our spouse and children is impossible without time together. The family mealtime is a great place to separate us from the labors and worries of the day so that we can simply be what we are, a family.