The Dining Room Altar

Every parent well knows the family mayhem that oftentimes is the family meal. Laughter and disaster, barbarism and beauty, and of course joy can take the stage at any moment; and that is part of the reason why the family meal is, like a circus, so dynamic and so wonderful. The stage for this production is the dining room table; but it is also more than just a dining room table. It is also an altar of sacrifice; for meals are, like the miracles of the circus—or even the miracle of the Mass—as much mystical as they are physical, and provide healthy absurdities that no man, no father, should take lightly.

Every father should well remember, especially round Father’s Day, what it is that he is the head of—a family. A family is a unit of culture. A Catholic family is a unit of Catholic culture. The challenge of every Catholic family, therefore, is to preserve and reflect the participation in the life of the Mystical Body of Christ. The source and center of this life is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: the perfect prayer, and the enactment of the Mystery of Faith—and it is designed around a meal offered on a table. In a similar manner, the family meal and the family table are central to the mystery of the family.

In this way, a Catholic family is much like a Catholic church. In this domestic church, as in the parish church, an atmosphere of truth and friendship is fostered, assisted by art and ritual, and ordered intrinsically to the worship and service of God. Like any parish, a family is a community devoted to each other through Christ and for Christ. Members of a church gather at a table for a meal, for Communion, just as members of a family gather at a table for a meal, for communion. The power and potency of the family meal is a sign and source of wellbeing in Christ. There are deep reasons why Christ ate His way through the Gospels, from the wedding feast to the last supper.

Contributing to the decline in American culture is the decline in the American meal. The idea and ethics of dining is deteriorating into a hurried and harried pre-packaged affair punctuated by interruptions. The very expression “fast food” is inimical to the most essential reason for meals, which is born not of speed but of care, consideration, and conversation. Just as Mass or prayers are not to be hastened through, neither are meals: our human communion. The tendency today is not only to eat in a rush, which prevents the enjoyment of a meal and demeans the dignity of food, but also eating alone, which diminishes the sense of community.

Fathers are called upon together with their wives to defend community, and therefore culture, by celebrating at the head of their dining room table for family meals. From this comfortable position, fathers officiate for a spell over family life and liturgy. Breaking bread together is a deep sign of cultural togetherness, for it bestows the natural nourishment of a person’s body as well as the supernatural nourishment of a body of people. A meal is a ritual: a manifestation of living together in harmony and health—an enactment of human civilization. Food provides happy occasion for gathering and collective enjoyment, which is one of the pillars of friendship. As an essentially life-giving activity, the family meal is the sacrament of the family: a sign and strengthening of the life that follows and flows from those labors of love that bind people together.

Fathers are the celebrants at the altars of their dining room tables, and should make an effort to make mealtime (even once a day) both celebratory and ceremonial. Gathering together. Burning candles. A single prayer and a single conversation. Fathers, together with the mothers who gave them the gift of their fatherhood and the gift of the meal at hand, can thereby make mealtime an icon of their family. To every parent is given the power to fashion that icon as a true image of something like Christ and like His Church. It has been said that the relationship children form with their parents will resemble the relationship they form with God; and thus, parents command the perception that their children will develop for the Divine—and that perception ought to be one of warmth, friendship, and laughter.

This time of nurture and culture is especially important for fathers who are typically away at work during most of the day. The evening meal is an opportunity for them to affirm their fatherhood in a positive manner, and to take an active interest in the growth of the family. And so every father should, through his smiles, speech, and stories, engage his family dynamic and provide his children with a good experience of conversation and conviviality. The consequence of this cannot be emphasized enough, for it is from that same table that an offering is made to God; an offering that can only be made by a family focused on God through focus on one another. Meals require that focus and interaction, and thus serve as a way of worship—a celebration of God’s gifts of food, fellowship, and family; a celebration where the work of a woman’s hands is received by her husband and offered on an altar. Every family requires that altar, that table, to maintain the health, happiness, and holiness of their little community, their little church.

Of course, the ideal is one thing and the reality very often another. As every parent knows, there is seldom anything so different from the Mass as the meal. The former is not the chaos-controlling event that the latter frequently is. This particular discrepancy or contrast between the dining room table and the altar, however, is all part of a hierarchical order. Parents strive to be Christ-like, but they are imperfect; and the family meal is a good time to remember that—and then to laugh, and keep on striving for the perfection Christ paradoxically challenged His followers to achieve. Admitting imperfection is, perhaps, the first step to achieving something very like perfection.

As Odysseus spoke in “The Odyssey:”

I myself feel that there is nothing more delightful than when the festive mood reigns in a whole people’s hearts and the banqueters listen to a minstrel from their seats in the hall, while the tables before them are laden with bread and meat, and a steward carries round the wine he has drawn from the bowl and fills their cups. This, to my way of thinking, is something very like perfection.

The meal is one of the central themes in this ancient Greek epic of the household.In it, Homer uses eating, drinking, and the customs surrounding meals as a touchstone of character that reflects inmost nature. Thus is illustrated the true selves of the swine-like suitors as they greedily gobble another man’s abundance, or the noble Menelaus as he serves Telemachus, or the savage Polyphemus as he gorges on the dead. The choice of depicting the act of eating as symbolic of the interior life is rooted in the mystical side of eating as an essential for life and the morality that springs from manners. It is a truth that every father should bear in mind as he daily assumes his place, like Odysseus, at the head of his family table, the head of his house. From there, from his altar, every father is called to do his utmost to render the manner in which he and his family eat as reflective of a common culture and a communal strength—and done in memory of Him who gave the family its ultimate power and purpose.

At the same time, fathers, admit your limitations and take a humorous look at the reality of spilled milk and little picky eaters. Embrace it all, and laugh at the differences between you as the head of the family table and Christ as the head of the Church; and through this humility, this acknowledgement of imperfection, bow down before the heavenly Father.

Sean Fitzpatrick

By

Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

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  • JMC

    This is a beautiful explanation of the importance of family meals. It also explains in a way no psychologist ever could why, in a dysfunctional family, even one with an abusive parent, family meals provide a lot of healing. I come from one such family, one of five children, and all of us came out of it healthy. There are internal scars, to be sure, but they are far less bothersome than they might have been otherwise. Though our family life was almost always marred by bickering (we kids often said of ourselves that we weren’t really a family, but only seven people sharing a home), mealtime was sacrosanct. Dad wouldn’t have had it any other way. At the table, as at no other time in the home, he was the leader, and the stabilizing force, and his example was something we all clung to when the going got rough. It’s no wonder that, when his time finally came, he went with a smile on his face. The nurses who were present when it happened said his joy was unbelievable; they were certain an entire host of angels had come to escort him to Heaven. And when we saw his face, so were we.
    .
    Mealtimes and fathers. In my mind, they will always be linked. And when one thinks of the Mass, in which Christ gives us Himself as our Meal, He Who is our access to the Father, then I suppose that’s as it should be.

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