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Book review: A Grateful Heart
365 Ways to Give Thanks at Mealtimes

A Grateful Heart, edited by M.J. Ryan A Grateful Heart
365 Ways to Give Thanks at Mealtimes

Edited by M.J. Ryan

Conari Press 2011
270 pages, including index

A lovely book, but not necessarily for mealtimes...

Giving thanks before eating is a small ritual common to many cultures and faiths, and was certainly part of the Sunday lunches and celebratory meals of my childhood. But these days, in the midst of our busy overscheduled lives, it can sometimes seem hard to pause even just for a moment to offer gratitude for the food on the table, those who produced and prepared it, and those with whom we are about to share it. A Grateful Heart aims to step into that gap with encouragement and inspiration.

Subtitled '365 Ways to Give Thanks at Mealtime', this small, nicely produced book is a treasury of blessings, poems, prayers and inspirational texts. Some are just a couple of lines, others are longer and more involved; some are traditional, others much less so. Despite the association with the Christian tradition of 'saying grace', this isn't a 'religious' book as such. Rather, as Ryan explains in the introduction, it is aimed at those who are perhaps 'uncomfortable within the structure of organized religion' and almost all the selections will 'speak to us all, regardless of spiritual orientation'.

I have to admit that, reminded of my rushed and far-from-heartfelt childhood mumblings of mealtime grace ('for what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful...'), I expected this book to be worthy yet a little dull. After all, how many ways are there to express thanks and gratitude? Well, let me tell you, this book is a revelation there are far more than you ever imagined!

The editor, change expert and happiness guru M.J. Ryan, has clearly done a vast amount of research, and found inspiration all over the world, not only from the more conventional sources (The Book of Common Prayer, the Koran, Kahil Gibran...) but also from Navaho blessings, Chinese philosophy, Irish songs and contemporary inspirational speakers. Even the Beatles get a mention with their famous couplet, "In the end the love you take, is equal to the love you make". Despite such disparate sources, everything in A Grateful Heart shares the common thread of wonder and gratitude for life and its myriad gifts.

It is a rich selection that is wonderful to dip in and out of, and offers food for thought that will last far longer than the allotted 365 days. However, I found the book less than ideal as a day-by-day guide to mealtime blessings and grace. Not only are many of the texts relatively long, but a lot of them (perhaps the majority) have a complexity that demands far more than a moment of quiet attention, and would become downright 'indigestible' before a meal! A great number demand a second or even third reading, and are likely to derail your meal into a spiritual or philosophical discussion. I can't therefore see them working for us a family with young children. But perhaps if you have teenagers, or entertain particularly cerebral dinner guests?

Having said that, there are a number of simple blessings among the more thought-provoking material. So if you are eager to revitalize your family's ailing tradition of saying grace then it is well worth browsing through A Grateful Heart and picking out the shorter blessings and simpler examples that you feel will work for you. And of course, the entire book would work wonderfully as a day-by-day series of meditations, perhaps used first thing in the morning, or as a bedside volume.

A Grateful Heart's 365 texts are organized seasonally, although with the exception of a small number of references to Thanksgiving and Christmas this isn't particularly defined. There is happily a useful index rare with this kind of book listing not only sources and authors but also themes and topics (joy, peace, reconciliation...) which is handy for finding texts and blessing that are relevant to the moment, or locating old favorites.

Whenever, and however, you use this book, its contents will enrich you, and you are likely to return to its pages again and again. Ryan reminds us that we all receive a constant flow of life's gifts, and 'whatever source we believe is the giver some concept of God or simply the breathtaking randomness of the universe when we give thanks, we take our place in the great wheel of life, recognizing our connection to one another and to all of creation.' This, she continues, 'plugs us into the aliveness of the whole world'.

And who among us doesn't want that?!


Here's one of my favorites from A Grateful Heart:

     Do all the good you can
     By all the means you can
     In all the ways you can
     In all the places you can
     To all the people you can
     As long as ever you can.
          John Wesley


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