Among the Amish
I was invited to dinner on my first visit with my Amish friends, way back in 1985. Before we sat down to eat, my old friend William said quietly, "Let's have a prayer yet." Everyone in the room lowered their heads and closed their eyes, and it was absolutely quiet. For the next 25 seconds or so I prayed silently to myself, giving thanks for the day, for my new friends around the table, and the meal to come, and I also wondered privately, when will this end? Finally I heard everyone exhale and I raised my eyes. The prayer was complete, time to eat!
Over the years I became accustomed to this silent ritual, but it never failed to amaze me in how it began, the extraordinary quiet during the prayer, and how it ended. Sometimes a house would be filled with people milling around the kitchen at dinnertime when suddenly, seemingly without notice, every head in the place simply dropped into silent prayer. During the prayer not a peep could be heard, no matter how many children were about, and at the end of the prayer everyone seemed to know exactly when to breathe. I learned to listen for the exhales, a sure sign I could move toward the dinner table.
The most dramatic experience with this was at a wedding a few years ago. My wife and I flew out for the big event, the marriage of Ernest, the eldest son of good friends. The strong young man who was about to be married had taken great delight as a child in whipping me at "Get Your Neighbor," a fun card game the Amish play with Rook cards. How could we miss his wedding?
Ernest and his fiance invited us to the wedding and all three after-wedding meals: the lunch for friends and family; the afternoon dinner, for friends and family who couldn't make the wedding; and the youth dinner, held later in the evening for the couple's young friends. The wedding itself is a story for another time.
When we arrived at the home of the father of the bride, we were directed to a large "pole barn", which is really not barn-ish at all. It has metal siding and a concrete floor and is very clean inside. Once inside we found several rows of cafeteria tables. The pole barn was packed out; there were almost 300 people there for the lunch! We learned quickly that men and women were to sit at segregated tables. My wife found her lady friends, but the men of our group were either not there yet or busy with the wedding, so I simply found a table full of friendly strangers and waited.
Before everyone sat down it happened again: All of a sudden the room went absolutely silent. I hadn't heard an announcement, a whistle - nothing! The silence lasted its customary 25 seconds or so, and then I heard the exhales. What made this all the more remarkable was that there was an abundance of children in the room, many of whom were barely toddlers, but not one of them made a peep during the prayer. We experienced the same thing at all three meals that day. Amazing.
It wasn't until a couple months ago that I figured things out. I read a book called Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher. In this book the authors discuss the daily importance of The Lord's Prayer, which is found in Matthew 6:9-13. They quote an Amish woman named Sadie who says, "The Lord's Prayer is said in every church service. We don't have a church service, a wedding, a funeral, or an ordination without the Lord's Prayer. Our morning prayers [with our family] also have the Lord's Prayer, and it's also read by the father in our evening prayers."
So on my most recent visit I thought, hmmm... Could it be? When it came time for grace on our first night there I lowered my head, closed my eyes, and I silently prayed the way I was taught as a boy:
Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil:
for thine is the kingdom,
and the power,
and the glory, for ever.
And just as I finished saying "Amen" I heard the first exhale! It worked!
Later I privately asked one of our friends about my theory and she said yes, the Amish do tend to say the Lord's Prayer when they are saying grace, but not always. It's just that the prayer is so all-encompassing, it touches on all aspects of our relationship with God. It acknowledges His place above us, thanks him for satisfying our needs, asks forgiveness for our sins, asks Him to help us avoid trouble on our journey through life, and praises Him. Pretty good prayer.
...but I still don't know how they trained the children. Guess I'll have to study that a bit more...