Liturgy and the Simple Goodness of Table Manners
a fixed set of ceremonies, words, etc., that are used during public worship in a religion
Life is a volatile cocktail of spontaneity and predictability. There’s not a perfect way to mix the two, no universally ideal way to combine the cold touch of uniformity and the spicy jolt of anything-goes so that the resulting flavor is to everyone’s liking. While most everyone would agree too much of either one spoils to drink of life, it is likely that few, if any, would have identical processes for achieving their preferred balance of taste.
Life with three children will never strike a perfect, predictable rhythm. That much can be predicted with confidence. Even more so when the eldest is yet to reach her fifth birthday and the youngest will be a big brother less than three months after his second birthday. Don’t come to my house seeking a quiet respite from the pressure-cooker of life, we’ll just spike the pressure levels.
There are five couch cushions strewn across the floor of our living room, creating a cushioned, makeshift playground that stretches from the hallway entrance to front window. No one has a blanket on their bed because they’ve all been adapted into parachutes, capes, slides, and monsters. My daughter can reach the disposable cups under the counter and the water dispenser recessed halfway up the fridge’s door, so there are one-third’s-full cups of water scattered around on every flat surface high enough to be out of the almost two-year-old’s reach. Anything lower than that has contributed to the slightly icky-dirty feeling that is created on the soles of your foot when you walk through the kitchen barefoot.
The window that overlooks our now cushion-less couch has a string of five small, die-cast metal train cars shoved into one corner, where they will remain until the middle child grows tired of people and retreats to the relative isolation of his corner with his trains. He might play with them for 30 seconds or an hour depending on his mood, the time of day, and whether or not he feels the urge to run to the bathroom and climb-up the porcelain throne like a naked, hairless spider monkey before conducting his business.
Sometimes in some ways, the chaos is comforting and life-affirming. Watching little lives take shape and little brains learn the laws of physics. Soaking in the after-glow of little souls learning joy and sorrow and little hearts learning to love one another, even when the “one another” in question is standing on your hair.
But it can’t all be chaos. Life calls for predictability in some areas. Uniformity is not always bad. It can be necessary. Not just for the sake of peace and quiet (uniformity of nap-times is a balm as true as any that the good people of Gilead ever dreamt up), but also for the sake of learning and growing. Chaos may breed creativity but it is not conducive to the construction of necessary social skills and habits. Repetition, the ally of retention, is more effectively utilized in a controlled environment, rather than a chaotic one.
Take manners, for instance. A desperate, high-pitched scream in the sound of “pleeeeeeeease!” uttered in the midst of hand-to-hand combat for the possession of a prized toy dump-truck does not good manners make. In such a circumstance the child will only think of it as a magic word deployed to enforce their will, rather than a way by which to show respect and deference to their dump-truck-loving counterpart. On the other hand, in the relative still and quiet of a dinner-table scene, the child might better associate “please.” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” with the face and voice of the parent offering a bite of macaroni-and-cheese rather than simply with the act of attaining said bite.
It’s certainly far from a guarantee, but the situationally-appropriate and repetitive use of the ceremonial words and phrases associated with respect, gratitude, and hospitality engrain the need and place of manners in the child’s formative years. “Train up a child,” and what-not.
When train-loving middle child has eaten to the point of satisfaction (either his or that of his parents, depending on the offered fare) he must engage in bit of home-based liturgy before he can be excused.
“Thank you….for the yuuuuummy supper.”
“It was very good!” (Offered regardless of his appreciation of the dish’s flavor profile)
“May I please…be excused?”
“Yes, you may.”
No variation of the phrases are permitted on the part of the middle child. If his “It was very good!” is not me by a parent’s rejoinder of “Thank you!” he does not proceed further. He pauses, waits for a moment, and then repeats the phrase until the correct reply is spoken. The time is both formative in that the necessity of manners is engrained upon his conscience and consciousness and relational as he pauses to connect, even if briefly, with a family member through the interaction. Upon hearing the final piece of the liturgical puzzle (“Yes, you may.”) he responds with a heart-felt “Thank you!” and pushes himself away from the table and clambers down from his seat to go and play.
There is a kind of comfort found in the moment of utter predictability. A security in the certainty of the exchange. The sure knowledge that, no matter what else had happened that day, no matter how chaotic or bizarre the events of the day might have been, there is a time of day when you know exactly what will happen next. They know what is required of them in that exact moment and they know what the outcome will be. No surprises or shocks. Just a communal moment of rest provided by the simple pleasure of a shared phrase and the formation it provides.