Sometimes Dinners Are Magical

Chris, Evangeline and Elbert.

Chris, Evangeline and Elbert.

The other day I was going about my day and I remembered a moment a few years back that speaks to something very special.

My housemate had invited someone over for dinner, just to connect and to share a meal, a common occurrence in my home. The new friend agreed to join us for dinner having previously attending a few community gatherings. These gatherings all had themes to them: Founders Day BBQ, Community Night, a fundraiser. This dinner was just dinner.

When our new friend entered the front door he said hello and began looking around, wondering why it was just a few of us. He asked us, “So what’s happening tonight.” And we shared with him that we were just having dinner. He said, “Oh okay, great!” Still a little confused, not entirely satisfied with that answer.

And the moment that struck me, and replays in my head a couple of years later was once we got settled into the meal, our new friend turned to my housemate who invited him and said, “So why’d you invite me for dinner, what’s the special occasion tonight?” And my housemate said, “We’re just having fun.” Answering somewhat dismissively, moving on to the next more pressing topic involving ceiling fans and the particular shape of a cat’s head.

Sometimes dinners are magical. People become their best selves. Connections are made, colorful stories are shared, laughter is felt throughout the whole house. Other times dinners are dysfunctional. People are grumpy because winter in Chicago is too long and too dark, someone would rather be alone than be with a table full of people that know exactly what buttons to push in order to provoke an irritated response. Almost always dinners in my home involve three versions of the same meal to accommodate the vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, strictly carnivore diets among us.

Almost always dinners end in a slow and simple prayer ritual that still strikes me. Often people pray about the same things every night, and in learning their prayers I’ve learned about their heart. I’ve learned who in their life captivates them the most, where they feel concern, ache, joy and loyalty. When you hear someone (or yourself) pray every day, you notice patterns and gain insight, which forms closeness in unpredictable ways. What refrains do they return to? Who is God to them? When do they feel most free to speak out loud, when do they prefer to pray or sit in silence? The daily ritual allows you to be a part of shifts and changes in the lives of the people around the table (and yourself) in a gentle way. A cancer diagnosis goes from feelings of fear, and anticipatory grief to one of gratitude for doctors, science, family that shows up well, bodies that are both resilient and fragile. And at the same time some prayers remain consistent for months, even years at a time. The things being prayed for are chronic worldly concerns: corrupt leadership, oppressed and impoverished communities, mental and physical illness.

A couple times a week someone comes into our home, just because, to share a meal and to delight in one another.

Thank God for L’Arche.

Evangeline Smith