'We give thanks' for food - but to whom?

Formal Hall at NewnhamBrits attached to their traditions but without the faith that gave rise to many of them face some knotty problems -- like, whether to say Grace before (or after) meals. Some students at Newnham College, a women’s college at Cambridge University, have decided that they cannot stomach the Christian Grace said at the start of formal evening meals held once a week, so they have made up one of their own. Both versions are in classical Latin -- more or less.

The traditional version runs: “Benedic nobis Domine Deus et his donis quae de liberalitate tua sumpturi sumus per Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.” It will be familiar to Catholics in this or similar English versions: “Bless us O Lord and these thy gifts which of thy bounty we are about to receive, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” It was introduced into Newnham by a Catholic, Jocelyn Toynbee, an art historian and archaeologist who was made an honorary Fellow of the college in 1962.

The new Grace reads: "Pro cibo inter esurientes, pro comitate inter desolatos, pro pace inter bellantes, gratias agimus." Which translates as: "For food in a hungry world, for companionship in a world of loneliness, for peace in an age of violence, we give thanks".

But classics professor Mary Beard found that this version stuck in her throat. Not because it left out God (she describes herself as “irreligious”) but because it was terribly non-classical, “a classic case of disguising a load of well meaning platitudes in some posh dead language, which was actually an insult to that dead language.”

“The debate got more complicated than this. Did the undergraduates want a secular grace or a multi-faith grace? If secular, then whom were they thanking in the new version? If it was simply a multi-faith version, then couldn't we just remove the "Jesum Christum" bit (presumably Jews and Muslims and almost every faith could tolerate a "deum omnipotentem"). After the meeting, we wondered if we shouldn't actually be thanking the cooks (or, to put it more crudely, those arguably exploited by us to bring us our nice food). But how would that go into Latin? 'Servi oppressi', suggested the Keeper of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam. Hardly a tactful way of thanking the staff, piped up the bursar.”

You can read Prof Beard’s blog to see how this saga will probably end. But it is interesting to note that Newnham, which, founded in the 19th century “not to be religious” (according to the Prof, it is the only mainstream, undergraduate college in Cambridge without a chapel) still has a tradition of public, Christian prayer. Not for much longer, perhaps. ~ Times Online, May 15



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