It never ceases to amaze me.
Americans will latch on to any fad diet with an almost religious zeal. The rules can be strict or relaxed, obvious or obscure. Give up dairy and meat? No problem. Give up carbs and caffeine? Easy. Cut out wheat, butter, sugar, fat or almost anything else and people are still with you, but suggest that someone might want to give up one of these items for a spiritual reason, and not merely a physical one, and you’ve lost them completely! “Why would I want to do that?” “I don’t want a religion that tells me what I can and can’t eat.” “Why would God care if I eat ________ (fill in the blank)?” The idea that the physical body and the spiritual body are linked can still seem odd and foreign, even to people of faith, and yet throughout our scriptures and our religious tradition there is an indelible link between our faith and the food we eat.
It is a great irony to me that Christians and the Church seem so preoccupied with issues of sexuality (something about which our Lord is recorded to have said very little) and yet spend almost no time contemplating the spirituality of their food, which was an issue and a symbol of great importance to Jesus. Jesus turns water into wine, he multiplies loaves and fishes, he describes the Kingdom of God as a banquet, shows concern for those who hunger, instructs his disciples to pray for their daily bread and ultimately offers his very life to them in the form of bread and wine. Food matters to Jesus; It should matter to us as well. Food should matter to us, not just in the sense of its power to subdue our hunger and sustain our lives, but also in its miraculous power to connect us to the created world, to our fellow human beings and ultimately to God.
Christians need to reclaim their spirituality of food, and that goes deeper than just saying grace before each meal (although giving thanks is an excellent practice worthy of being maintained). We need to get serious about what we eat, how it is raised (and who raises it), how it is prepared (and who prepares it), and how it is eaten (and whom we eat it with). This isn’t about latching on to some fad diet or latest nutrition trend; it is about realizing how the food we eat influences our entire lives, especially our spiritual lives, and choosing to do something about it.
I think that there are 4 principles that we as Christians need to understand if we are to truly appreciate the influence that what we eat can have over our faith, or relationships and our lives in general.
- Some fruit is still forbidden
This is not about avoiding whatever the current nutritional “bad guy” of the week is; It is about the very simple realization that what you choose to eat affects your life, and the lives of those around you. The story of the fall of humanity begins with a man and a woman choosing to eat the wrong thing. From the very beginning of our scriptures there is an understanding that what we eat can have consequences for us that go far beyond our digestion. To put it simply: some things are not to be eaten, and it isn’t because they are necessarily poisonous to our bodies, but rather because they are poisonous to our souls. When gentile converts to Christianity were first being accepted into the church, there was some debate among the disciples as to whether or not the converts should be forced to maintain Jewish dietary laws. After some discussion, and with some influence of the Holy Spirit, the disciples decided that it was not necessary for gentile converts to observe all Jewish laws; however, they were instructed to “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (Acts 15:29). Leaving the issue of fornication to the side, the early church clearly upheld that there were certain things that Christians were simply not to eat. Food that is sacrificed to idols (or that leads to idolatry), and food that comes from animals that are improperly or inhumanely slaughtered are strictly forbidden. How many Christians stop in the supermarket and ask themselves: where is this meat from? Was this animal treated with the respect that a creature of God deserves or was it treated inhumanely and brutally with little regard for the God-given life running through its veins? Is our food culture serving to glorify the God of Jesus and our ancestors or is it serving some other idol (like corporate profit and greed). These are serious questions. I am not a vegetarian, nor do I advocate becoming one, but if we are to fully appreciate the life that our food gives us, then we need to respect the life that it often takes from other creatures.
- We depend upon each other
I love going to the grocery store: it is a little world full of interesting food possibilities, but one thing I have noticed about shopping at the local supermarket is that it is entirely possible to get my food without having any human interaction whatsoever. Even the checkout counter is automated. I can go to the store buy, the food that I want, and go home without needing help from anyone. Once I thought that that was a great convenience, now I realize that it is a huge problem. It is a problem because it is a lie. I do need help from others…lots of others. Buying food from vast corporate supermarkets, it is easy to forget how much we depend upon the work of other people to supply the meals we so often take for granted. You don’t see the farmer who grows the wheat, or the miller who grinds it, or the baker who bakes it; you simply see a loaf of bread. But that bread represents the work of many others, whose livelihood also depends upon feeding us. I live in the suburbs. Even when I grow vegetables in the garden, I am not going to be able to grow everything I need to keep myself fed, and I certainly can’t keep any livestock. We can’t all live on farms, but we can all learn to appreciate that the food we eat comes to us, not simply by our own labor, but by that of countless others. Visiting a grocery store can be convenient, but knowing the farmer, the butcher, and the baker that put their life’s work into your food is far more spiritually nourishing.
- The ritual matters
One of my primary functions as a priest is to preside over a meal. The Lord’s Supper is a highly ritualized meal and filled with symbolism, but it is a meal nonetheless. Now I firmly believe that the bread and wine of the Eucharist actually do become our Lord’s body and blood, and I believe that it has the power to strengthen our souls in a way that no other food can, but I don’t stand in front of my church on Sunday morning just distributing it to passersby so that they can skip the whole service. Why? Because the entire ritual of the meal feeds us, and not just the bread and the wine. It is through ritual that connections are made. How many relationships are begun over a shared meal? How much do we learn about what it means to live in a family or in a community by sitting down and eating together? It was over meals that Jesus did much of his teaching and it was a meal that he left his disciples as a way of remaining connected to him. Our food rituals, when we respect and preserve them, can create spiritual connections that death simply cannot conquer.
A month before I left home for college my grandfather died. I had always been very close to him and his death was really the first that touched my life in such a personal way. Someone that I had loved deeply was gone and I found myself wanting to hold on to all the things that reminded me of him. While I was getting adjusted to life on my own, I began to miss the foods that reminded me of home and the loved ones that I was missing. I decided to work on a project: I would request recipes from my family members scattered across the country, along with some of their favorite stories and pictures, and edit them into a cookbook. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was this very cookbook that eventually led to my becoming a priest. It still sits on my shelf, now very worn and with a few food stains, but that’s as it should be, as it gets used frequently. Family recipes, traditions, and rituals are the glue that hold us together across generations. They keep us connected to those who have passed before us and help us to know who we are. I often wonder if our faith is formed more by the supper that happens Sunday evening than the one that happens Sunday morning, but in either case I have no doubt that the ritual matters.
- Beware cheap imitations and short cuts
The devil tempted Jesus to turn a stone into bread, and ever since he has been tempting us to turn garbage into food as well. Jesus didn’t buy it and neither should we. “One does not live by bread alone” was our Lord’s response, meaning that it isn’t just the food itself that feeds us. The work, the rituals and the human interactions that go into our food are all part of what make it nourishing and life-giving to us. So many of our diet related health problems stem from the fact that we are convinced that we should have all of the pleasure of food without any of the work of producing it. But the work of producing it is a part of what gives us life and it is also that same work, which helps us keep our appetites in check. Good food, food that nourishes our body and soul, actually takes time.
I grew up in a very Southern family and some of my fondest memories are the lessons I had in had to prepare food the old fashioned way. It created a life-long interest in traditional foods and an appreciation for the amount of work that it actually takes to produce a meal from scratch. Maybe the pace of my life will never let me go back to a time when everything was cooked at home, but maybe I can in small ways start to reclaim my diet from the host of food-like imitations that have invaded it. Yes, it takes extra work to actually cook and prepare your own food, but you also reap extra benefits. People like to talk about saving time by not cooking, but think about all that time that cooking does give you: time to pray, time to think, time to talk with your loved ones. Maybe it is fast food that is the real waste of time.There are no short cuts. There are no substitutes. Anyone trying to convince you otherwise is probably working for the other side.
What we eat, where it comes from, who we eat it with, and how much work we put into it all affect our spiritual lives as well as our physical wellbeing. Eating is a spiritual act as well as a physical one, and it should give us joy as well as sustain our lives. Food is a gift from God and the preparation and eating of it should glorify God as well. To take the spiritual dimensions of our food seriously will mean making some sacrifices: it may mean caring more about substance than convenience, but then if the old adage that “you are what you eat” is true, isn’t that what we want to be? People of substance? Maybe it is time that we dust off some old traditions, get into the kitchen and start reclaiming the spirituality of our food. It is, afterall, a gift from God.
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.