It may be possible that if we look at the meals of the brothers and sisters in this way, not as the empty silence of people who have vowed not to speak to one another, but the dynamic conversation of another and very intentional way, then it is easier to see how we may share in this fruit and what it may offer to us as we sit down to share meals with our friends and families, with co-workers and fellow students, and even when we may be sitting by ourself and outwardly alone.
For families, it is very good to have conversations with our children about the things that they find enjoyable and to encourage them to find what they want to do with their life and during their time throughout the day--even to share these things as adults is very meaningful and important. But here we are reminded of two things.
The first is that we come together in order to share ourselves and not other things. It is one thing to talk about the activities and the joy’s of one’s own life, and something different to always, or even mostly, be talking about other peoples’ lives; it is one thing for a child to talk about baseball practice and quite another thing to go on and on about how the local team performed and how their coach, or the referees failed; it is one thing to ask a child about what they created in art class and something very different to talk endlessly about popular singers and bands. It may be more difficult for us to imagine and comprehend the significance of these differences because we have become so enmeshed in a culture of social media, reality tv and sports fandom. But it remains significant, nonetheless, to talk about our own activities, experiences and thoughts; to speak about what occurs within our actual sphere of life, rather than merely watching, gazing upon and being a vocal spectator of the lives of others. If we want our conversation to be nourishing, it should reflect and be centered on nourishing things.
I recall that shortly after my father’s death several years ago, my mom and I came across an old tape recording of one of our family dinners. It was mostly a conversation between me, when I was four years old, and my dad. We did not have many recordings, this was actually the only recording of his voice that we had. On this occasion, my parents were helping me to learn how to speak more clearly and so, they set the recording so that they could then play it back for me to hear how I actually sounded. May dad was talking to me about taking my plate into the kitchen before I ran off to play; he was asking me questions about what I was thinking and what I had heard him say; he was patiently teaching and at the same time, joking. Many of us have similar memories. Meal times are privileged times and bring us closer to the ones we love most. They have the potential to be sacred moments in ways that exceed the normal times and interactions throughout the day, and this, I believe, is our desire: to find the sacred and to experience the potential that such moments bear for us. We can certainly skirt by these moments and pass them aside, but in taking on this life in allegiance to Christ and a life that continues to transform us and lead us toward perfection we have recognized that there are things that lead the soul toward Christ. This work is intentional, requiring us to always be mindful and choose this Way.
Mindless banter about interesting, yet empty things in life fills the time and may provide some fleeting entertainment, but it does not lead any of us to our goal in life. Knowledge about fashion trends, popular celebrities, sports teams, television shows and popular culture does not lead one either to wisdom or to greater love on one another. One should not take this to mean that all table conversation should be dour and serious, lest we forget that coming together is a time of love and joy. We are to share our happiness and laughter. To joke and share what brings happiness into our life is love and is sacred and holy. Our intention here, if we return to even the silence of the brothers and sisters, is not to create an atmosphere of solemn isolation, but that in our meals when we come together, our attention and focus is placed on those we are joined with. It is also worth saying here, in our age of cell phones and tablets, that we should not answer the phone, unless our job or some other real obligation demands it, during meal times and it would be best that they remain silent during meals.
Finally, it can also be suggested that some form of table reading can be beneficial. In our digital age, we could easily consider playing an audiobook for fifteen or twenty minutes on certain nights during the week. This could include a spiritual reading or even a fictional book that’s appropriate for children and can be shared as a family. Watching of tv during meals should be discouraged, as this distracts people from one another and does not engage our minds or imaginations in the beneficial way that the spoken word does. Neither would it be a harmful idea if one member of the family periodically, or even each night, began the meal with a short reading from scripture, just a verse or two. Each of these things not only reminds us of the unique place that meal times offers to our daily life, but also provides us with something additional and good to share with one another.