By Felix Carroll
Maybe the mashed potatoes were already getting cold and the gravy beginning to congeal. Maybe the pressure to eat had dictated that the compulsory Thanksgiving Day prayer be abridged to pragmatic generalities.
“God, thank you for gathering us all here together. Um, thank you for this meal. And, God bless … um … the world.”
Ah, who am I kidding? Thanksgiving Day prayers these days are always a wobbly, discomfited sort of simulated entreaty to the divine — whether the potatoes are warm or have turned taciturn. Nearly half the crowd at that table is of the prayer-free variety. Another are “lukewarm” believers — their juries still out, their bets still hedged. Probably the only true believer — no more questions asked — is your Grandma, who’s 85, healthy even though she still smokes, and who threw up her arms years ago and allowed God to be her rudder.
So where does that leave the leader of prayer, the head of the household? He’s a hedger of bets with a slalom course of sensibilities through which to maneuver. The prayer needs to be something simple yet pithy, with just the right balance of joy, irony, and sincerity, if such a balance is possible without the cranberry sauce instantaneously combusting.
“Okay, then. Let’s say a prayer,” he begins.
Three of the non-believers had already launched into their meals. Shamefaced, their eager chewing downshifts into first gear, and they look solemnly at their folded hands, maybe taking note that their skin shows signs of dryness. “I need to put some moisturizer on these fins of mine.”
The leader of the prayer is listening to himself as he adlibs his divine petition, careful to steer clear of getting too Bible-y. When the prayer ends, maybe there’s a brief silence. He stares down at his plate.
“Did I just say ‘God bless the world’?” he thinks to himself. “That’s pretty lame.” And he’s right. If there’s a God, he’s probably rolling his eyes right now and thinking:
“Really? Is that the best you can do? ‘Bless the world?’ Okay, I’ll go ‘bless the world’ as you suggest. World: I bless you. How’s that? Why didn’t I think of that sooner? Now go stuff your face."
The leader of the prayer wishes he could have a do-over. He thinks:
“God bless the world — that’s the lazy man’s prayer, the prayer of the underachiever, the ‘Gentleman’s C’ of prayers. And it landed with a thud, didn’t it? Like unexploded ordnance. It’s the prayer of the automated age, geared to maximize metaphysical productivity while minimizing the outlay of time and trouble for the delivery of godly services. God, kindly bless this world if you would. Margaret, please pass the stuffing. Timmy, please cover your mouth when you cough. God bless the world. Jeez, I’m an idiot.”
One of the lukewarms is thinking:
“God bless the world? Did I notice he said that with a twinge of impatience? His inflection was similar to ‘Junior, clean up your room.’ God, clean up your room. Hmm.”
Another of the lukewarms is thinking about it, too:
“God bless the world. Nicely done. I noticed he was only making a suggestion to God. Sort of like, ‘No one is telling you what to do, God. It’s your world; we’re just renters without a lease.’ Cheers!”
Even a prayer as short as this has opened up an amphitheater of silent reflection in these beginning, awkward moments of chowing down.
“God bless the world,” one of the non-believers is thinking. “Did he just unearth a great existential ‘Duh?’ In other words, why merely give thanks for our good health, or why simply pray that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria trip over an electrical cord and land in a pool of angry piranhas? God, why don’t you go ahead and bless the whole dang thing? We don’t want to leave anyone out of our prayers because that wouldn’t be right, right? That would be wrong, right? Amen!”
Meanwhile, another of the non-believers is thinking:
“How did primitive man pray? With one eye open, I bet. Had to. If they lingered too long with their eyes closed, by the time they opened them again they would discover everyone else had already lunged for the roasted boar.”
A lukewarm on the far end of the table is wondering how her good friends who flew to the Caymans for Thanksgiving are fairing right now:
“I betcha they’re not praying. No one in the Caymans prays after a tranquil day lounging on the beach like self-contained lava lamps of rum and cranberry. No one.”
Meanwhile, the leader of the prayer is biting into his meal, looking at grandma thinking:
“Man, it would be so much easier being like her, a believer. Look at her. She’s so at peace. She’s outsourced it all to God. Remarkable. Maybe I should take up smoking.”
All the while, Grandma is thinking of that first Thanksgiving so many centuries ago:
“How amazing that the pilgrims were aiming for the more congenial weather and rich soils of Virginia, but the Good Lord shoved them off course into the cold, rock-strewn wilderness of Plymouth. And what did they do? They froze their butts off, built shelter, shot some pheasants, started a fire, and gave thanks to our Creator. God bless the world? Damn straight. ... Wow, this gravy is superb.”