Living on a prayer: what the Latin grace at Commons really means

Why do we continue with a tradition so deeply connected with millennia of war, perturbing court cases and fractured trust? Students may predominantly be left-wing and forward-thinking, yet we are more than happy to stand up for grace.


Miserere nostri te quaesumus Domine,

tuisque donis, quae de tua benignitate sumus percepturi, benedicito

per Christum Dominum nostrum.

These are the words which ring in the ears of the students as they take to their seats prior to the Commons meal. Rewind back two minutes; the grand doors of the Dining Hall are slammed shut to mark the beginning of grace. A hundred wooden chairs scrape the marble floor in unison. The Hall freezes with eerie silence only to be broken by the faint footsteps of the “waiter” as they ascend the pulpit.

The tradition of the Latin grace before the Commons meal is sometimes contentious. Oftentimes students remain seated for the entirety of the grace. I am tempted to endure the prayer firmly on my chair, but I always rise like the vast majority of my table. With religion an ambiguous issue among our generation, and with large numbers of students tend towards an atheistic or agnostic outlook, it seems unconventional to recite grace before a meal. Tradition, however, prevails in Trinity.

Why do we continue with a tradition so deeply connected with millennia of war, perturbing court cases and fractured trust? Students may predominantly be left-wing and forward-thinking, yet we are more than happy to stand up for grace.

Trinity College Dublin’s Latin grace is steeped in history. The tradition began in 1627, when William Bedell held the position of provost of the College. Bedell was an Anglican churchman who became a martyr of the Reformation of Ireland during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. He advanced the Reformation by allowing the Collect, a prayer used in Christian liturgy, to be read in Gaelic instead of Latin so that the people would understand it. Bedell was the original composer of Trinity College Dublin’s version of the grace. Many versions of the same prayer exist for the different colleges of Cambridge.

At the beginning of every College year ten students are appointed to waiterships; they recite the prayer, ideally from memory. The position is generally filled by scholars, but is not exclusive to them. Each evening at 6.15pm, the waiter stands atop the “egg-cup”, the common-name given to the pulpit. The Psalm expresses gratitude for the meal which the students are about to receive. The “after meat” prayer thanks Elizabeth I, Charles I, James VI “and our other benefactors”. We cannot be sure who those other benefactors may be, but one could hazard a guess at white, male and Protestant.

A hundred eighteen- to thirty-year-olds are thanking extinct monarchs of the British empire for putting a roast dinner on their plate. Possible future leaders of our country are praising Elizabethan British colonialism. Trinity’s students are indifferent to the contents of an archaic verse that rolls from their tongues on a nightly basis.

There are a few students, roughly ten, who protest quietly. They do not stand for the “before meat” or the “after meat” prayer, as they are named. I spoke to Louis, a senior sophister philosophy and maths scholar, who remains seated without fail during the recitals.

He said: “Personally, I have a bigger problem with the idea of mass support for something which realistically very few people actively agree with. There’s certainly a fair chunk of people who don’t even know what it means; we were never told, the only reason I know is by asking a classics student. I think it’s fair to assume that the reason most people stand is that most people stand and in a community which, if it has any function at all, should be generating new ideas and challenging the way we do things, this kind of intellectual complacency is particularly disappointing.”

No one is forced to recite the prayer – students put themselves forward for the post. In preparation, they are offered the contact details of a classics professor to help them with the pronunciation. No assistance is given for the explanation of substance of the grace. They are going into a job blind to deliver two prayers composed of words they don’t understand.

The mere fact that the prayer is in Latin highlights the antiquated aspect of the tradition. Once the power-language of the Roman empire, it is now strictly for research and academics and is rarely spoken. The grace at Commons is a rare opportunity to hear Latin being read aloud. While a classics or a theology student might rejoice at such a spectacle, it may mean less to the remainder of the guests.

The students’ laissez-faire attitude towards the tradition is the main problem. But it is fuelled by another factor: fear. This boils down to the fact that also in attendance to Commons on a regular basis are the fellows. According to the Trinity College website, “Scholarship or research achievement of a high order is the primary qualification for Fellowship, coupled with evidence of the candidate’s contribution to the academic life of the College, as shown in particular by participation in the work of his or her Discipline or School, and an effective record in teaching.” On rare occasions, the provost attends Commons. Students who frequent the meal wish to please their lecturers and I’m sure certainly the provost. It takes courage to go against the grain during Commons.

However, some students enjoy the role that grace has to play in the meal. Tamsin Greene Barker, a senior freshman PPES student, thinks that “There is a lot of value in taking time out of our hectic college schedules to appreciate the food we are given.” She goes onto revel in the traditions of Trinity; “They make our college experience unique.” Some may question what harm there is in keeping a tradition that takes merely takes a couple of moments out of meal time.

Certainly it does seem peculiar that at most 10% of students at Commons would reject standing for grace. It is generally believed that students are outspoken, forthright and politically aware, and yet so few of them even question the contents of the prayer.

As a younger attendee of Commons since my first year in college due to a Sizarship, I admit I have always stood for grace. I am not religious, nor do I believe in any of what the prayer says, and yet I rise every time.

The act of standing for the prayer is a dramatic one; when experienced for the first time, it is bound to surprise. The thud of the double doors shutting suddenly followed by the loud screech of the chairs against the floor almost scare you into standing up.

Before I started researching this topic for the article I did not realise the meaning of the prayer, and now that I do, I will be even more reluctant to rise when everyone else does. However, I fear that I lack the confidence to remain seated, and I admit that this frustrates me. Deep down I am adamant that I do not support the message of the prayer, and yet I will probably disappoint myself.

Amendment 19/12/15 20.03, an earlier version of this article contained the line “Emails from the Schols Secretary have never contained a translation of the grace.” The Schols Secretary however is not obliged to email translations of grace, and if contacted to do so will do so. Translations are also available in other places.

Una Harty

Úna is a third year Nanoscience student and Trinity Life editor for Trinity News.