As a child, saying grace meant reciting (without really understanding) the typical child’s prayer, “God is Great, God is Good; Let us thank Him for our food.” It was usually reserved for special occasions like Christmas or Thanksgiving when company was over. Otherwise, despite my mother being very much a Christian, saying grace did not figure much into our day-to-day lives.
My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, said grace with every meal. When we visited with her, we were included in the ritual, holding hands around the dinner table as she recited her ever-changing and heart-felt thanks. I was impressed with my grandmother’s ability to give thanks without resorting to a rhyming child’s prayer, but I never quite understood the point of thanking a god (your God) for your food, as though it/he was the only reason you had food in the first place. When I was little, saying grace was just something you did by rote, like reciting the Lord’s Prayer. After I began my spiritual search as a teenager, it was just a reminder that I had put Christianity aside.
I never really thought of the concept of giving thank again until just a few years ago when I began considering veganism.
I was (and still am somewhat) conflicted about veganism as a lifestyle choice. On the one hand, I’m just not a big meat eater and I never have been. On the other hand, veganism tends to be somewhat unbalanced — all-or-nothing, black-or-white, rather than shades of grey — and I am more and more about the grey as I get older. I found it hard to reconcile the idea that meat-eating was somehow unnatural with the fact that carnivores abound in Nature itself. And if it’s wrong to eat a living creature, why is it then OK to eat living plants? Isn’t that using the same judgement that makes people think that animals are less than us to make plants less than animals?
As I was trying to work out the inconsistencies in my head, I came across a July 2008 blog post by Amber the Donkey at Spring Farm Cares that answered the very questions I had. I’m going to reproduce the post here in its entirety simply because it’s hard to link directly to it on the Spring Farms site. (It predates the Blogspot blog and I really want you to read it; and whatever you may or may not think about the idea that animals can communicate with us, I urge you to visit the Spring Farm Cares site and its blog and read the posts ascribed to Amber in particular — regardless of their origin, they are incredibly profound yet accessible and may well answer questions you didn’t even know you had.) Any highlighting/emphasis is mine.
Q: I am wondering if being a vegetarian is most appropriate for an animal lover like me. I have done this before, but currently I eat meat. I certainly do not like supporting the cruelty of the meat industry — especially the factory farms. At the same time, I look at the animal world, and see meat eaters everywhere. So, what say you?
Amber Donkey: This is a question for which each and every one of you must answer for yourselves. Your choices that you make for your well-being and your body are yours alone to make. That basic guideline being stated, I can give you my opinion and the opinion of the animals I live with, some of whom would be eaten if they were not here. This is a question that immediately raises lots of emotion and judgment for many people. I would like to say emphatically, that whatever your choice, it should never be judged by anyone. Many feel they do not want to eat meat to honor the animals, and then they condemn and judge those who have made different choices. This does not honor the animals at all. Your question is actually 2 separate issues however. And I will answer it in two parts to make it more clear.
The first issue is to eat meat or not and how do animals feel about it. I can tell you this. Animals understand being eaten. Animals understand the predator/prey relationship. Humans do not understand this. Many look to animals and say that they eat each other so it must be ok to be eaten. But what you fail to see is that those animals who eat other animals to live, do so in relationship to those other animals. In that relationship there is respect, honor, appreciation, and love of Life that is passed between the animal being eaten and the one eating of it’s flesh. Every animal eaten by another animal is taken with regards to their spiritual connection with all of Life. It is never taken unjustly. It is never taken lightly. It is never taken for granted. And no life is ever wasted. That is the essence of the predator/prey relationship. It is based on honor and respect. Animals are not upset that humans eat meat. In fact, in our own barn we have heard visitors say that those who eat meat are not spiritual. We believe this is not correct. These are not mutually exclusive.
However, most humans are not even aware of what they are eating. They do not eat with spiritual awareness. If you did, you would be in relationship to all you eat, plant and animal alike. You would be conscious of the fact that for you to live, something lends it’s life to you to nourish you. You would thank each and every thing that nourishes you. And in that respect, that life would live on through you. When you are out of relationship with what you eat, then you do not honor what is being given to you. That is equally true for plant life as well as animal life. There is no difference. Life is life. Plants do have conscious awareness. It just looks different to you. Herbivores are in relationship to what they eat. I am always thankful to the grasses and grains that have given their lives for me. That thankfulness is a part of who I am, as it is for each and every one of the beings who live with me on this farm. We have a relationship with grass and plants.
What we see in humans is a lot of ingratitude for what you are given. Do you ever thank your food? Do you thank the apple for the nourishment it brings you? Do you thank the leaf of lettuce? The tomato? The chicken or the cow? So many people do not even have awareness of what kind of animal they are eating. So the travesty is the lack of awareness and relationship with what nourishes you. Animals understand that in the end we all are eaten. Our bodies are consumed by another or insects or earth. It is part of the cycle. Humans have removed themselves completely from that cycle. You may be on the top of the food chain, but you have no understanding of the relationship of every living thing around you. And while you may not be eaten by other animals, you are certainly eaten by your own misgivings.
The second part of your question is actually about factory farming. Because while animals understand being eaten and that relationship, it doesn’t mean we understand living lives of hell and dying in panic and pain. That also is not part of the natural way of things. And it is a direct product of humans not being in relationship with their food. If you were in relationship with all you ate, you would never mistreat an animal in the food chain. You would never kill your vegetables with poisons. You would treat ALL living things with love, respect, and honor. Because you would understand that the life you treat well will nourish you. Instead, you have walled off all relationship with your food and thus have treated the living beings who give their lives to you with complete disrespect, dishonor, and total lack of compassion. And this you then feed to yourselves and your children. If humans for one minute felt the anguish and pain of the animals you hold captive and kill for your food, the practice you call factory farming would come to a screeching halt. Yet you blindly consume that anguish daily. What you do to them goes into you.
Is it possible then to eat meat and be spiritual? Absolutely yes. To do so you simply need to make your choice to be aware and thankful of each and every thing you eat and that nourishes you. When you have done that, you will have honored the life of that being who will then live on through your flesh. This is true for the grass I eat. It is true for the carrots and apples people bring me. It is true for the chickens and ducks who live with me. All of us understand this as such a basic and simple truth.
With those words, I understood the point of saying grace. It’s not about thanking some nebulous, singular higher power; it’s about thanking your fellow living entities for their contributions to your survival. It’s something many cultures (particularly cultures that live closer to the land) have long understood, but unfortunately something that many people have lost touch with.
Note: This post has been languishing in my Drafts folder for years, but comes to mind now after Kate wrote about meeting two rats. In her post, she describes what one of the rats, Ohna, passed onto her; and it echoes Amber’s words so much that it reminds me of how poorly I’ve followed the advice I read four years ago:
Please tell the other humans to take a moment to connect with the souls of the animals who have died for them. (Shows me humans eating chicken off of a plate.) You don’t have to feel sad for them or guilty – these emotions will only make you sick in your heart, and they will not help the animals. Just take a moment to thank the animals who have touched your life and your body (shows me leather belts and shoes.) Animals are all around humans all the time. Their bodies are everywhere and so their spirit consciousness is everywhere too. Thank your animals (the ones you eat, the ones you wear) and it will do your soul good.