by Fr. Daniel Daly
Originally published in DIAKONIA, Winter 2008 
 In 1865 a not so well known poet named William Ross Wallace raised the timeless question "What Rules the World?" His answer took the form of a poem containing the well-known line "The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world." His poem was about the importance of motherhood. Wallace has found his place in literary history through this one sentence. The poem is on the Internet and is worth reading.
There is no doubt that a mother has a lifelong influence on her child. Every mother innately knows how important her presence is especially to her newborn child. But her influence continues long after the days of the cradle. One of the most powerful places of her influence is the family dinner table. Feeding her children is much more than matter of providing nourishment. It is an act of caring and love. It is here that the mother becomes a teacher.
If a mother brings her family together for the evening meal, she can teach her children some of the most important lessons of life. She does not have to give long lectures to her children; she just has to do what her mother and grandmother did before her.
If the family prays together before the meal, children learn that they belong to a family of believers. They give thanks to God because there is a God to give thanks to. That prayer of thanks and blessing, prayed day after day, year after year, can be a constant reminder that we are the children of God and He is our Father. At the dinner table, the family becomes a "little church."
The family prayer also teaches the lesson of gratitude. The child learns to be thankful not only to God, but to his or her mother and father for providing the food.
If the greatest Christian virtue is Charity, it is at the family dinner table where the lesson of charity can first be learned. The child learns that he or she must be aware of the others who share the table. He must be aware that others also need to eat and that he does not have a right to everything that is on the table. The awareness of the presence of other persons who have legitimate needs is a lesson that must be carried through life.
The child learns to practice charity by being polite. "Please" and "thank you" have to be the language of the table.
The child learns that he is part of a community, the community of the family. The father of the family usually sits in the same chair each evening, as does the mother of the family. Each child has his or her place. Here the child learns the lessons of trust. The child has a place in this world. The world is not a hostile place.
If a family consistently eats in front of the TV, these lessons are lost. We lose a certain amount of contact and interaction with the other members of our family. We probably will not pray in front of a blaring TV set. Eating ceases to be a social family affair and becomes something merely functional as we are being entertained.
The family dinner gives the mother another opportunity to teach her children. Here I am referring to the Orthodox practice of fasting and abstaining from certain foods. Our Lord did not say, "If you fast," he said, "When you fast." Fasting has been part of the life of the Church since its foundation. We will learn the lessons of fasting at our family table or we will never learn it. The example of the mother is critical. The fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays are not something optional in the life of an Orthodox family. They are part of life of the church. The Lenten seasons are a necessary part of our spirituality. Advent (in preparation for Christmas), the Fast before the Dormition of the Theotokos, the Great Lent (before Pascha) are very important times for all Orthodox Christians. They can be filled with Grace, Faith and Love if we do it right.
By preparing and serving her children their evening meal, every mother is in a position to teach her children some of life‘s most basic and important lessons as well as the discipline of the church. It is here that we learn that we are part of a family. It is here that the lessons of faith, trust and charity are learned. No sermons need be taught. No lectures need be given. The ritual of the family meal, begun in prayer and carried on in charity is tried and true. The lessons of faith and love cannot be learned in isolation, they are only learned in community.
Indeed, the hand that rocks the cradle is very important; but the hand that "holds the spoon" is equally so.