Is there any image of the family more iconic than the family at the dinner table? Here is where the family gathers as a group, as a unit, as a whole. Yes, the people there are imperfect, with varying degrees of brokenness, and all with far less than perfect love for each other. But gathering around the table reflects a unity, a bond that is unlike any other on Earth. This is the fundamental group to which we belong, the group we will turn to in the most difficult of circumstances. These are the people who will run the extra mile for us, pick us up when we have fallen, the people we will call when life throws us an emergency. These are the people we love.
Dozens of studies in recent years have documented the benefits of family meals. Teens whose families eat dinner together have better emotional health, less substance abuse, higher self esteem, better peer relationships, higher GPAs, better vocabulary and reading skills, less obesity, more positive family interactions… the list seems to go on and on. It would seem that the family dinner is beneficial for the body, the mind and the spirit!
These positive effects should come as no surprise, of course. Mothers have been preparing dinner for their families for centuries, if not millennia. Everyone can feel the sense of well- being that comes from the family meal. But busy schedules of both parents and children alike have lessened the frequency with which families sit down and eat together. Some will say that only 40% of American families eat together two or three times a week. Others will say there has been a 30% decline in the frequency of family meals. Whatever the number, there are fewer families sitting down to eat together on any given night.
Families must reclaim the family dinnertime. The benefits are enormous. We live in difficult times. As Catholics, we live in a world in which our beliefs are often mocked. Raising healthy, holy children has become a great challenge. We do not have the social supports we once did.
At the family meal, we can regroup. Everyone sits down. For many families, this is the only time prayer is said together. We look at each other. We share food. We pass it to each other. The young are taught to say please and thank you. Everyone learns that, when it come to our family food, the welfare of the group is more important than the desires of any individual. We take portions that allow for all to have some. We nourish our bodies, but more importantly, we nourish our hearts, minds, and souls.
The family meal is time spent together. We put our electronic devices down. We look at each other. This is probably the longest eye contact we have had with other family members for that day. We inquire about how each other’s day went. We laugh. We empathize. We make plans.
Beneath the surface, even more is happening. Bonds are being reinforced. Each individual’s sense of worth is being replenished. The awareness of belonging to a group that intensely cares about me is being strengthened. In short, each member of the family is being told that he is loved, that she belongs, that this is our place, our refuge, our fortress. It is at this table that the teen no longer needs to pretend to be stronger than he is. She does not need to watch for the reaction of others to see if she is accepted. This is a safe place. It is here that Mom and Dad can smile at the child or teen. Here is where the hesitant are encouraged, achievements, however small, can be acknowledged. It is at this table that advice can be given, preferences and opinions are honored, worth is affirmed. At the family dinner young and old alike see that he is not alone, that she is loved.
And so we eat together. We break bread. Our Creator God said from the very beginning that it is not good for man to be alone. No, it is not. We know it in our hearts. At the family meal we can feel it in our very souls. We are not alone.
Is it any wonder, then, that God himself expressed his own desire to be in union with us, to love us, to be with us forever, in the breaking of the bread, his own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity? The source and summit of the Christian life is itself a communal meal. How God knows and loves us!! He knows what we need. Always.
This article first appeared at www.catholic365.com.