The God Squad: Praying together helps all faiths

Editor's note: Starting Saturday, the Daily Pilot will regularly publish The God Squad column by Rabbi Marc Gellman, who offers practical answers to questions about religion, faith and spirituality. "In Theory" will continue to be published on occasional Saturdays. Be sure to catch the Pilot's new "On Faith" column, which appears on the Sunday Forum page.

Q: I'm a Jewish woman and wonder if you can suggest something meaningful I can do when sitting next to a Christian silently saying grace before a meal. A Catholic friend crosses himself after grace. So far, I just remain silent and bow my head a little. I'm accustomed to Christian friends joining hands and collectively saying grace, but I'd never saw anyone say grace individually until I moved from the North to the South. Perhaps this is a Southern tradition. — J., via

A: I think you're doing the right thing, but you could do more. Bowing your head is a respectful act, but you, too, should ask God's blessing on your meal. The idea of saying grace before meals is a way of inserting a measure of spiritual gratitude into our lives; none of us should take our food for granted.

My longtime partner on The God Squad, Father Tom Hartman (thank you all for your prayers for him; he has good days and bad days with Parkinson's disease, but his spirits remain strong), once knew a rich man with a strange habit.

Tommy told me he was once invited to dinner at the man's mansion. It was just the two of them at a huge dinner table in the formal dining room. The butler brought the host a dinner roll on a silver plate as the first course. The man took the roll, smelled it, pulled it apart, slowly and silently caressed it, and then ate it. Tommy asked the man why he did this and he responded: "I'm surrounded by luxuries and it's easy to take them for granted. If I can stop and try to fully appreciate and be grateful for something as simple as bread, then I know I won't fail to appreciate all the higher blessings in my life."

If we can all ask blessings for our bread, we can ask blessings for everything else. So, I'd suggest you offer to say grace the next time you eat with your Catholic friend. The Jewish blessing, which I believe to be spiritually congenial to people of all faiths, is simple: "You are blessed, O Lord our God, who brings forth bread from the earth."

Now, of course, God doesn't actually bring forth the bread you eat. The farmer brings forth the wheat, the miller brings forth the flour, and the baker brings forth the bread. However, God is the life-giving force that enables all this to happen on the life-giving earth created by God. Saying grace is not only wise because it helps us be grateful for simple things, but it also reminds us to be thankful for all the hard-working people who produce our food.

Finally, asking God's blessing on our bread reminds us of all the people who have no bread. This reminder of the poverty around us can help us renew our efforts to aid food-rescue programs, food banks and soup kitchens in our communities.

One of my favorite stories is about a student who asked his teacher, "What's the difference between heaven and hell?" The teacher said, "In hell, all the people are sitting around a huge table filled with every kind of wonderful food and fine wine. They can see and touch the food, but they can't bring the food to their mouths because their arms are locked in an outstretched position."

The student said, "Yes, that is indeed hell, but what is heaven like?" The teacher smiled and said, "In heaven, all the people are sitting around a huge table filled with every kind of wonderful food and fine wine. They can see and touch the food but they can't bring the food to their mouths because their arms are locked in an outstretched position." The bewildered student asked the teacher, "So what is the difference between heaven and hell?" The teacher answered, "In heaven, the people are feeding each other."

Let me encourage you not to think so much about what to do while your friend prays, but rather about how you can pray with him (without crossing yourself!). One of the ways Tommy and I became best friends was by learning to pray together. The other way was by learning to play golf together, but that's a topic for another day!

FROM THE MAILBAG: The following note is from faithful reader Ed Wood, of Connecticut, who comments on a parenthetical reference in a recent column about honoring an abusive parent. I said the edict to honor your parents is No. 5 in the Jewish counting of the Ten Commandments, but No. 4 in the Christian counting of the "Big Ten."

Ed writes: By the way, a reminder! Roman Catholicism doesn't encompass all of Christianity "Honor they father and thy mother" is actually commandment No. 5 in much of Christendom, as you can see:

1) I am the Lord thy God.

2) Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven images.

3) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

4) Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day.

5) Honor thy father and thy mother.

6) Thou shalt do no murder.

7) Thou shalt not commit adultery.

8) Thou shalt not steal.

9) Thou shalt not bear false witness.

10) Thou shalt not covet.

MG: My view is that both traditions are right. "I am the Lord..." can't be commandment No. 1 because it's not a commandment! And dividing the coveting commandments into two (No. 9 and No. 10) also makes no sense because they're both about coveting. So climb on the Gellman bandwagon to convince the world that God gave us only nine commandments! The way I see it, nine is way more than enough.

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