It is not the intention to treat in this brief essay of the various forms of blessing and thanksgiving which are authorized by the Church and practised by different religious communities and some other persons, but rather to speak of the act itself—its propriety, its antiquity, the favor with which it has ever been regarded by the faithful, and the approval it has received from many holy personages of the Old Law, and from our divine Saviour and His apostles and saints in the New. It is proper to remark in the beginning that while the priests of the Church, by the power they receive in ordination—having their hands anointed, that whatever they bless shall be blessed, and whatever they sanctify shall be sanctified—are the proper persons to bless articles officially as the ministers of God, and in His name; still any person, even a child, is permitted to make the sign of the cross over any proper object, with the intention and desire that the blessing of Heaven may descend upon it, and upon those who use it in the spirit of faith and in conformity to the divine will. For this reason it is not only permitted, but recommended, that lay persons should ask the blessing of God upon such things as they have occasion to use, and for which there is no special blessing. But as nothing in the natural order is more common or necessary than the food we eat, it is very fitting that it should be sanctified by the word of God and prayer. Under the head of the blessing of food thanksgiving is also commonly included, whether it is made before or after the meal.
Turning to the authorities on the subject, we learn that the blessing of food was enjoined on the Jews by God Himself. Moses, laying down the law for the chosen people, says: “When thou hast eaten, and art full, bless the Lord.”1 According to the Talmud, the form of prayer recited by the Jews after each meal was this: “Blessed be Thou, O Lord, our God, the King of the world, who hast produced this food (or drink) from the earth (or the vine).”2
Monsig. Gaume, however, gives a more particular account of this ceremony, which will doubtless be interesting to the reader. He informs us that at meal-time “the father of the family, surrounded by his children, said: ‘Blessed be the Lord our God, whose goodness gives food to all flesh.’ Then taking a cup of wine in his right hand, he blessed it, saying, ‘Blessed be the Lord our God, who has created the fruit of the vine.’ He first tasted it, and then passed it to his guests, who also tasted it. Then followed the blessing of the bread. Taking it between his hands, the father of the family said: ‘Praised and blessed be the Lord our God, who has drawn bread from the earth.’ He then broke the bread, ate a piece, and gave some to his guests. It was only then that the meal began. When they changed the wine or brought in new dishes, a particular blessing was made over each, so that every kind of nourishment was purified and consecrated. The meal being ended they sang a hymn of thanksgiving.”3
Turning to the New Dispensation, we have the highest sanction for this universal custom in the example of our divine Redeemer, who on several occasions is said to have blessed the simple fare prepared for Himself and His apostles or the multitudes, as in the institution of the Blessed Eucharist and in the multiplying of the loaves and fishes, as well as at other times. St. Paul, too, frequently admonishes the early Christians to receive the gifts of God with thanksgiving.
It is impossible that a custom so perfectly in harmony with the promptings of a generous nature, as well as with the practice of holy men of earlier times, should not have been adopted and practised by Christians from the beginning; and that such was the case we have abundant evidence. The extracts from the Fathers which I shall proceed to give are taken for the most part from Monsig. Gaume, above quoted.
Says Tertullian: “Prayer begins and ends the meal.” St. Athanasius bears witness, in the following words, to the custom of his early day: “When we sit down to table, and take the bread to break it, we make the sign of the cross over it three times, and return thanks. After the repast we renew our thanksgiving by saying thrice: ‘The good and merciful Lord has given food to them that fear Him. Glory be to the Father,’” etc. The austere St. Jerome follows with the admonition: “Let no one ever sit at table without having prayed, and let him never leave it without having given thanks to the Creator.” Carried away by his ardent zeal, St. John Chrysostom rebukes some of the Christians of his time in such forcible terms as these: “We must pray before and after meals. Hear this, ye swine who nourish yourselves with the gifts of God without raising your eyes to the Hand that gives them.”
Not only in families was the blessing of food practised, but even in camp among the soldiers, where, if in any place, we should expect to see it omitted. St. Gregory Nazianzen, among others, bears witness to this fact, and that, too, in the time of Julian the Apostate—a circumstance which is worthy of note.
It is needless to add further evidence on this point. The custom is so well known that no one at all familiar with the daily life of the early Christians will presume to call it in question. But the reader will be interested in having placed before him some of the forms of prayer made use of on such occasions at that early day. The two following are taken from Origen, one of the earliest writers of the Church. The blessing before meals is in these words: “O Thou who givest food to all that breathe, deign to bless the food we are about to take. Thou hast said that if we should ever drink any poisonous thing, we should receive no injury thereby, provided we would invoke Thy name, for Thou art all-powerful. Take away, then, from this food all that is dangerous and hurtful in it,” And the thanksgiving was couched in these terms: “Blessed be Thou, O Lord our God, who hast nourished us since our infancy, and with us all that breathe. Fill our hearts with joy, that we may abound in all kinds of good works. Through Jesus Christ Our Lord, to whom, with Thee and the Holy Ghost, be glory, honor, and power. Amen.” How profound the philosophy, how simply beautiful the language, of these invocations!
Whenever a priest was present, the honor of asking the blessing was very properly conferred on him. And indeed the practice of asking the blessing at table was regarded as so holy that when, in the ninth century, the Bulgarians were converted to the faith, they asked Pope Nicholas I. whether a layman might take the place of a priest in performing this function. “Without doubt,” answered the Pontiff; “for it has been given to each one to preserve by the sign of the cross all that belongs to him from the snares of the demon, and in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ to triumph over his attacks.”4
Different nations have different customs in this as in almost everything else; but among some, especially among the Germans, in this country at least, it is usual to have one of the children pronounce the blessing at meals. I have been at table in their houses, when, though a priest, I was passed by, and one of the children asked the blessing. I approve of this custom, because it familiarizes children with such pious exercises; and the great, the crying want of our day is more prayer, and prayer on ordinary occasions.
So natural to man is the blessing before meals, and so deeply grounded in his nature, that even the pagans saw the propriety and felt the necessity of it, as may be learned from their writings. And here again I shall beg leave to quote from Monsig. Gaume : “Never,” says Athenseus, “did the ancients take their meals without having first implored the gods.” And speaking of the Egyptians, the earliest of all the pagan nations of whom we have an authentic history, he continues: “Having taken their places on the banquet-couches, they arose, knelt down, and the chief of the banquet or the priest began the traditional prayers, which they recited after him; after that they resumed their places.”
The pouring out of libations to the gods, not only at the beginning of the feast, but at the bringing in of the several courses, is so well known as to require the merest reference. The Romans had a proverb which the learned Erasmus translates as meaning: “Do not throw yourselves on the food like beasts, but eat only after having offered the first-fruits to the gods.” Even among the pagans, according to their best writers, the daily repast was regarded as something sacred. The reason why these blessings were pronounced and libations poured out, according to Porphyrius, a high authority in such matters, is given in these words: “It must be known that the dwellings are full of demons. This is why we purify them by expelling those malevolent hosts every time we pray to the gods. Moreover, all creatures are full of them, for they particularly relish certain kinds of food. So when we sit at table, they not only place themselves beside us, but also attach themselves to our bodies. Thence comes the use of lustrations, the principal end of which is not so much to invoke the gods as to expel the demons.”
There is no indulgence attached to the mere asking of a blessing before meals, or the returning of thanks after it; but prayers are sometimes said at meals which have been indulgenced by the Holy See without reference to the occasion on which they are recited.
All fair-minded persons then, whether Christian or not, must, by the weight of the most irrefragable proofs, conclude with the learned Monsig. Gaume that “prayer over food is as ancient as the world, as widespread as mankind.” The virtue of prudence will teach that it is not advisable to make the sign of the cross over food on some occasions and in some company, but it will not teach that it is ever advisable to omit at least a secret blessing of the gifts of God.
It is much to be regretted that contact with an unbelieving world has exercised a baneful influence over many Christians, causing them to forget or neglect the pious custom of blessing before and thanksgiving after meals, so reasonable in itself, so consonant with the spirit of our holy faith, and so highly sanctioned and consecrated not only by the practice of the noblest portion of the human race—the saints—but commanded by the voice of God, and practised by His Incarnate Son during His sojourn upon earth. Can a custom so recommended carry with it anything but a blessing? Can a faithful child of the Church regard it lightly, or blush to practise it? It were to brand himself as more negligent or forgetful than even the pagans, much less the favored children of a kind and merciful God. Far be it from any Christians in our day so to dishonor their fathers in the faith.
1 Deuteronomy, viii. 10.
2 “The Life of Jesus Christ,” Maas, p. 220.
3 “The Sign of the Cross in the Nineteenth Century,” pp. 244, 245.
4 “The Sign of the Cross,” etc., p. 240.