Your guide to Thanksgiving grace
Father Doyle’s advice: ‘Let your heart speak’
To the best of my recollection, I had never once said grace until meeting Father Tom Doyle.
Once or twice a year for over three decades, I would dutifully bow my head and muster the willpower not to pick up my fork and start stuffing my face with mashed potatoes. I had, in the past, considered this a remarkable feat deserving of respect (I really love mashed potatoes).
Father Doyle changed that. Father Doyle is about as warm and unintimidating a clergyman as you could ever hope to meet. The childhood friend of a mutual buddy, Father Doyle has become a fixture of private social gatherings. Sometimes he settles in to break bread. Other times he dashes in and out, on his way to or from a family in need. But whatever the occasion, whether it’s a backyard children’s birthday party or a celebratory dinner at a nice restaurant, he has always made the time to gather everyone together and say a few words of thanks.
When he speaks, it feels as if you’re being embraced in a huddle you never want to leave. “Grace is my conversation with God that other people get to eavesdrop on,” Father Doyle told me.
He gets a lot of practice saying grace at André House, where he is executive director. The central Phoenix Catholic charity ministers to many of the city’s neediest citizens, serving hot meals to 500 to 700 people a night. Last year, André House served its 5 millionth (yes, millionth) meal. Despite the inestimable human suffering on display, Father Doyle and André House’s hardworking volunteers – and many of their guests – find reasons to give thanks before every meal.
“It’s a place where people have so little,” Father Doyle said, “but it’s a place where I see so much gratitude.”
Inspired and not a little shamed by his example, I pledged last Thanksgiving to say grace and followed through, however clumsily. But I couldn’t have done it without the sage advice of Father Doyle, who was happy to provide some pointers and words of wisdom to encourage the tongue-tied to speak up this Thanksgiving – and whenever the spirit moves them.
It all boils down to this: “Just don’t let the words get in the way. Let your heart speak.”
Why say grace?
“For me, it is the conscious expression of gratitude for gift,” Father Doyle said. As someone who works daily to feed the hungry, that’s how he thinks of food. “We don’t create it, we don’t make it – it’s just a gift.”
And grace is the pause before receiving that gift to say thank you.
Is it necessary that the speaker practice a particular faith?
No, Father Doyle said. Though he is, obviously, a devout Catholic, he considers the urge to give thanks instinctual. “I just think there’s something anthropological about us that is wired to understand there is a benevolent force in the universe that blesses us.”
What’s the best way to prepare?
Father Doyle’s prayers never feel mechanical, but instead like sincere expressions of gratitude. He starts, he said, by thinking about where he is and whom he’s with. “I look around and think for 30 or 15 seconds,” he said. “We’re going to give thanks for the meal, but there are so many other blessings worth mentioning.” A meal with friends and family is about more than just food; it’s a chance to be in communion with one another.
Don’t sweat the words
There’s no perfect formula for grace or one “right” way to say it, so long as you mean what you say. “If you’re saying grace and you’re worried about the words, you need to get past that,” he said. “It’s just an authentic expression of whatever sentiment you feel in your own words, in your own accent.” Case in point: Father Doyle’s all-time favorite grace was the one delivered by his 4-year-old nephew at Christmas. “He just started to shake and he said, ‘Thank you God for everything in the whole wide world!’ I’ve often said that’s the perfect grace.”
Getting comfortable with prayer
Prayer can be intimidating. Opening yourself up through prayer – whether it’s to the Judeo-Christian God or whatever creative force you think might move the universe – is an act of intimacy. Father Doyle thinks of prayer as placing one’s self in God’s presence and, as with grace, one need not fret about the words. “Sometimes being in that presence will invite words,” he said. “Sometimes it’s being silent, sometimes just letting thoughts, moments of gratitude, expressions of need pour over you or pour through you.
“Whether you’re Hebrew or Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Catholic, we just place ourselves in the presence of God and trust that God loves us and adores us and wants us to thrive.”
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Father Doyle is happy to provide pointers and words of wisdom to encourage the tongue-tied to speak up this Thanksgiving.