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Praying in Restaurants

“Grandpa, we don’t pray in restaurants!”

So declared my daughter to my father, many, many years ago. Our food had arrived, and as was his custom my father said quietly, “Shall we pray?” Three year old Emma’s immediate retort was totally sincere. Her tone was more perplexed than curt. “What in the world is grandpa thinking?” might have been her subtext. 

I felt a little amused and a lot embarrassed. But Emma’s declaration was true. We didn’t pray in restaurants. I don’t recall it being a fully deliberate decision, although young Emma had obviously noted the clear distinction.

Our reluctance had something to do with Jesus’s words about not practicing your piety in public—although, as I’ve often reminded my congregation, the admonition against piety in public is not an admonition against piety in general.

At the time we lived in upstate New York. Seeing people pray in restaurants was pretty uncommon there, as I recall. Perhaps that should have provoked me to pray publicly. It might have been the place to do it. Counter-cultural, eccentric, witness, and all that.

Now as a resident of the Midwest, it is very common for me to observe, and sometimes participate in prayers in restaurants. No doubt, many of you know the drill. The food arrives. Someone—magically, we all seem to know who it should be—quietly says “Shall we pray?” Sometimes it is unspoken—a subtle, knowing nod. On cue, everyone sits up a notch, momentarily lifts their face and takes a big breath before lowering their head and closing their eyes. It looks a bit like a child taking a deep breath before trying to swim to the bottom of a swimming pool.

Then, the uncomfortable silence. How long to keep your eyes closed and your head down? What if you come up for air too early, while the others still are in prayer? Is there a prize for the one who stays down the longest?

These are the sorts of sacrilegious questions that too often occupy my mind, rather than actual prayer during these times. And I also observe people in other booths. Man, they are really praying for a long time! And they all finish almost simultaneously. How do they do that? 

Sorry that my assessments and questions feel so petty. I feel convicted. At least, somewhat.

But my concerns about showy religion and syrupy piety also remain. I don’t want to be ashamed of my Lord or ashamed of prayer. Both matter enormously to me.  

So when I, by mystical rite, am the appointed prayer-starter in a restaurant, I’ve adopted this practice. Trying very hard not to change my posture, or the tone or volume of my voice, I look around the table, trying to make some eye contact with my companions, and I say something like, “We thank, gracious God, for the gift of this food and these people and your presence among us. Nourish us that we may be your glad and willing servants, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” My hope would be that if webcams or people at the next table were watching us, it would look as if our conversation had simply rolled on without stop.

In my context, where practicing your piety in public still feels pretty thick and cloying, this seems like the best solution for me. Thoughts? Reactions? Wisdom?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Annie says:

    I very much appreciate this musing. My parents raised my siblings and me praying out loud, eyes closed, heads bowed, and holding hands on our rare restaurant trips–just as if we were home. Whether we eat at the Walnut Avenue Café or eat rolls and cheese on the grocery store sidewalk, if my parents are involved, this is expected.

    Your idea of a conversation-esque prayer is very much welcome to one whose prayers are conducted in private and consist of a skyward directed hand motion or a few words: "thanks"; "really?!"; "oh help"; the middle-finger; raised eyebrows; etc.

    (And in terms of piety, I'm much more likely to pay attention and process the words if some one is making eye contact with those who make the "we" assumed in prayers of thanksgiving. It otherwise makes for excellent, albeit awkward, daydreaming time.)

  • Kathy Davelaar says:

    This is great Steve. Lots of memories — poignant and dear to me in these words.

  • Nathan DeWard says:

    I defer to the local custom or company I'm with at the table. If I don't know the custom of the people I'm with, I ask. If I'm not with professed Christians, I pray an unnoticeable prayer. If I'm by myself, I pray as I start eating with nothing noticeable.

    Praying is an act of spiritual hospitality when it's done at the table.

  • Daniel James Meeter says:

    I think I remember Rich Mouw writing about this too. Or was it someone else? I always cross myself, and offer a silent prayer of thanks. In a small group, I often pray a short blessing, eyes open, head up. I HATE TO HOLD HANDS WHEN I PRAY. Nothing against you people.

    I never know what to pray during silent prayers. I find myself always waiting till someone does the "sniff". In Dutch families it's the father. And at home too. When he sniffs, the prayer is done for everyone.

  • Kathy Davelaar says:

    OH Dan, and you have added yet other memories! <3

  • Kathy Jo Blaske says:

    Rich Mouw wrote "Praying at Burger King." Same concept. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I'm asked to. Sometimes I'm not. Sometimes I do so silently, without closing eyes or bowing head. Mealtime prayer does keep me mindful of so many blessings for which I'm thankful.

  • Tom says:

    Prayed in restaurants for years, but do so no longer. Early on, it was a comfortable practice for the family, but these days, it’s just my wife and I. We no longer pray “publicly” – looking back, I think there was a sense of “witness” about it – let other folks know that we’re “christians.” Was there pride in this? I’m not sure. But I’m sensitive these days about how “christians” are perceived and the taint on our reputation (well deserved most of the time).

  • Rev. Peter B. Armstrong says:

    My cousin (via marriage) was the proud owner of the norman rockwell painting above for many decades. He recently sold it for tens of millions. Hopefully we don’t have to give him royalties…

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