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Dinner Table Spirituality

It occurred to me just a few days ago that without thinking about it, my family and I were doing a group Examen at our dinner table.  I don’t know why it took me so long to recognize this fact, but now it’s obvious to me that one of the very important reasons families and friends should eat together is that it sets the perfect stage for reviewing one’s day in a thoughtful, and potentially prayerful, manner.  “How was your day?” — we ask this of each other, wanting to share in each other’s experiences, to deepen our sense of community.  When my girls were still very young, we started the practice we call “two things,” a simple exercise of sharing two reflections on our day, after beginning our meal with a shared prayer.

So it’s gotten me thinking: I wonder if other traditional spiritual practices might be ways that people pledged to lives of celibacy might substitute for practices embedded in family life.  In families, spiritual practices can be seen as ways that families come together after the centrifugal force of various activities.  If meals are opportunities for an Examen, perhaps it’s possible to see wakeup and bedtime routines as a kind of liturgy of the hours, a way of structuring the day around acts of love and attentiveness.  Laundry, cleaning, planning around work and school and sports and various lessons–perhaps all these can be seen as opportunities to reflect the basic Benedictine motto of ora et labora, pray and work.

For many, the paradigmatic expression of a lived Christian faith is monasticism.  To be sure, it was a foundational movement in the history of the Church, arising as it did from those women and men who went off to the desert to live radically in imitation of Christ as spiritual athletes.  But with the Franciscan, Dominican, Jesuit and various women’s orders, there developed complementary models of living one’s faith in the world.  It was Ignatius’ right hand man Jeronimo Nadal who famously described the place where Jesuits worked, in contrast to monks: “the world is our house.”  For the early Jesuits (see John O’Malley’s fine book The First Jesuits for more on this), too much prayer in chapels or churches took time away from building God’s kingdom.  There’s even a letter from Ignatius himself dissuading some Portuguese novices from staying in choir too long.

I am a lay person.  What I see today is a new movement among many other lay people to develop yet another movement in the history of Christian spirituality, one that sees work in the so-called “secular” realm as itself an expression of a deep, sustained, lived faith in Christ.  I work among Jesuits; I visit monasteries for retreats; but I live at home, and that is the place where I live out my salvation in fear and trembling.  I do not think God calls me to live in the monastery, or in the community of Jesuits on mission, but rather in the home and in the world.  And to the extent that my living in those places is rooted in the sustained desire to serve Christ our Lord, it is (I think) no less a religious vocation, no less a spirituality, than that of the monk, friar, sister, or priest.  We are, after all, all members of the one Body of Christ, and we all break bread at the same dinner table.

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Tim Muldoon
Tim Muldoon
Tim Muldoon is the author of a number of books, including The Ignatian Workout and Living Against the Grain, and teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Boston College.


  1. I read this blog on 1 April 2011, but the other comments were all nearly a year old, so I assume the blog also is … but still very timely. I agree whole-heartedly with the blog and comments. I have two supplementing comments.
    A. The occasion of the evening meal is a core family event. I think that needs stressing, especially in today’s US culture. And using this as a moment for family examen sacramentalizes the meal (the gathering), so this should be on the table along with the bill of fare. … a sort of eucharist.
    B. Part of examening with others such as a family is the art of listening, which again is not something most of us are likely to pick up from the mainstream culture. So perhaps in addition to the questions about what I might say, and thus share, around the table, a few words on the etiquette of listening while others are sharing. This kind of listening involves more than just “taking turns talking”.

  2. Thank you for this. It is a blessing to hear my own deep belief echoed in your post. For many years now, my family has done a dinner table examen. It began when my four children were pre-schoolers and continues ( a bit less regularly) now that most of them are teens. Our focus are the two questions proposed by the Linn Brothers : What am I most grateful for today? What am I least grateful for today?
    I can’t tell you the blessings! Through this practice we have all learned a discipline of gratitude and of seeing God distinctly in the everyday circumstances of our lives.

  3. Thank you for this Post. I am glad that Vocation has expanded more and has seen the vitality of Lay People’s role in the wider Pastoral ministry in the church. I know some congregation missionaries who from the beginning had inspired other religious congregations and has inspired others to move down from the pedestal of the church. So it is not something new for others nor for me. But in the future, I really pray that there will be more inter religious dialogue because this is something still few congregations are realizing. I live in a country where Christians are not even 1 % but I also learned from their way of relating with Nature and God by their own way of relationship.
    But let me just say I am very grateful for the Jesuits that they can really discern how to make the modern day communication become a positive channel for all of us Lay People who cannot afford time and money to be able to stay attuned with our own faith.

  4. To expand on your theme, I liken the parish place of worship, as opposed to the meaning of Church as a people, as an engineering office. Some engineers stay in the workplace to draft and plan while others go out into distant fields to do hands-on. Still others work in their own locale. Some folk work better with the group at homeplace, such as with money raising endeavours and suppers, while others prefer to be out where the action is, where they can really get their hands and feet dirty.
    It’s all service.


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