The State of Grace Prayer: Today, around tables of every description, with dishes plain and fancy, people who are family -- for the moment or forever -- clasp hands in a common gesture of praise and thanksgiving.

November 27, 1997|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On a bland and drizzly November night, Brother James McClurkin entered the state of grace by saying a blessing silently over a mound of mashed potatoes, corn and fried chicken. When he had finished the last jiggly square of pale green fruit Jell-O, he said it again, then sang it, then he stood and asked his friends to join in.

Plastic tubes dangled from the nostrils of one man at the table, who clutched an oxygen tank and started to sway and sing in baritone harmony, "Blessed Be the Rock!" An old woman who had complained of mental illness before dinner raised her limp head off the cradle of her hands and lifted her voice in a bright tremolo. Another man, who had survived drowning, been crushed by a bulldozer and, most recently, emerged from the wreckage of a tri-axle truck in a coma, clapped his hands, closed his eyes and crooned blissfully.

More than two dozen people, suffering quietly from physical disability or financial misfortune, joined in as the grace said before their meal continued to flow, 20 full minutes of hand-clapping, body-swaying, gospel-singing grace, steadied only by the temperate chuck-a-chuck strum on an acoustic guitar.

The November meeting of the Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship began with respect and praise, two hours of a slowly rolling ritual of saying and singing grace.

Today in particular, the same homey ritual will be repeated in greater or lesser ways millions of times, in restaurants, kitchens, shelters, fields, churches and dining rooms. Perhaps more self-consciously than on more ordinary days, people will bow their heads and lift up their hearts in the same spirit as Brother McClurkin when he smiled and raised his arms to gather the spirit of the occasion.

The brother, a man as slight as Gandhi, smiled and cracked his leather-bound Bible, all scrawled upon with inky notes.

"Taste and see that the Lord is good!" he exclaimed. Praise God, they murmured. Praise the Lord.

"Is He good?" McClurkin shouted.

"He is good!" they echoed.

"I said, is He good?!" McClurkin repeated, leaning an ear forward across the podium. "He is good!" they shouted.

Outside the quaint meeting room, regular customers of Catonsville's Old Country Buffet craned to pinpoint the disruption.

The brother lifted up on his toes, shook the Bible in his hand and sang out a line from the Psalms: "Praise will be continually in my mouth!" Coming down again, he whispered, "Prayer is the way of touching God's power."

Hallelujah to that, the friends said. "Hallelujah!" the brother repeated. Amen and amen.

Saying grace, which began that night in silence with heads bowed, would not end until after the tables were cleared and songs had been sung, and smiles and laughter and the warm commotion of spoken gratitude filled the room.

Victim of an unidentifiable degenerative nerve disease, McClurkin excused himself an hour later, dragged one leg and hobbled out to his car. A cold drizzle made the night heavy and somber, but the brother felt all right, driving back to work with words of grace still on his lips.

"Prayer is all of everything," he had said, even before the meal began. "Without prayer there is nothing."

'The presence of God'

The act of saying grace at mealtime is one of the few standard practices of faith that crosses easily among traditions. Taking many forms, grace is a peculiarly humble human response -- the voice of gratitude -- to a Spirit who, for many, is equally a presence and a mystery. Even the phrase itself -- saying grace -- implies a yearning for connection to a source of spiritual power.

"Grace and gratitude come from the same root, which has something to do with the presence of God," says Rosemary Dougherty, director of spiritual guidance at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Direction in Bethesda.

"I guess that's why we talk at mealtime about 'saying grace.' Saying grace is sometimes begging God's blessing and begging God's presence in our lives. But I would like to think of it as a way of showing that the blessing is already a reality. The blessing is already there."

The form matters hardly at all. Words of praise and desire will lift out across the groaning board as a laconic burst, a comic phrase, an old chestnut, a line of sentimental poetry, a flowing meditation. Depending on where you are today, you may hear:

Bless our hearts to hear in the breaking of bread the song of the universe, a grace of the Benedictine Father John Giuliani of West Redding, Conn., or;

Great Spirit, I thank you for the blessings and gifts that You have provided for me and my relatives, and the food that You have provided also. I pray that we will receive strength and good health from it. So be it, a Lakota prayer, or;

Oh bless this food we are about to receive. Give bread to those who hunger and hunger for justice to us who have bread, a grace from Nicaragua.

Or you may stand in silence, like the Quakers. Or join hands and sing. You may pray before and after the meal and for every morsel in between, as Sufi Muslims do.

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