Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Sacredness of Food

Years ago, I occasionally went on private retreats for a couple of days to allow myself time to grow closer to God. On one particular occasion, I reserved myself a little space with one of the local convents, set in a quiet and peaceful area near the Rocky River reservation. Often during these retreats, I would pray, meditate, read or even climb down the hill to the river to experience God in nature. On this one particular retreat, however, I do not remember much except one simple experience. My accommodations gave me access to a small refrigerator in which I could store the food that I had brought for myself. Early that first evening, after settling in, I retrieved from the refrigerator a beautifully ripened pear that I had brought. I cored and quartered it with a small knife. I ate it slowly, allowing myself to savor its cool, juicy sweetness. It was a simple moment: just God and me and the pear.

Ever since then, I’ve told people (who then look at me oddly) that pears are a sacred fruit.

Of course, all food is sacred. The cycle of seeds growing into plants that blossom and bear fruit can only exist because of a creative life process that transcends anything we humans could do on our own. The process appears to have been established with a great care that enables it to keep creating, nourishing and re-creating the living things (of which we are part) that inhabit our earth. The more I read and learn, the more awe I feel for this holy process. Before we humans came along and set about "improving" things, the system seems to have worked remarkably. Plants grew and produced their fruit which animals ate. The animals grazed on to neighboring land, dropping undigested seeds into new soil along with some natural fertilizer, allowing crops to be "rotated". Nutrients from the soil were absorbed into the plants and their fruits, nourishing the animals who in turn returned nutrients to the soil. What could be more perfect?

So what has happened to us? To our relationships with food, our bodies and the earth? How is it that we have come to consume so much that is not really food? We eat our own creations that often fail to nourish while neglecting the whole foods ("holy" foods) that the Life cycle produces for us. We extract, refine and add back all kinds of ingredients in our "food" industry - as though we knew better than the Creator what would nourish. And we wonder why our bodies don't feel good or look good. Of course, when we start to notice that something is amiss, it drives the development of yet more industries, to create and sell more products (from make-up to medications), in hopes that they will make us feel good and look good. Our earth is depleted, our bodies under-nourished (but often over-fed) and we no longer know how to eat.

I remember when I first came to Cleveland as a young adult as part of a spiritually-based volunteer corps, I had an unusual lunchtime practice that I engaged in now and then during my lunch hour. (That was back in the days when people still had lunch hours). I would leave my workplace with my little bag of food and find an isolated spot, so that I could have lunch with God. Sometimes I walked to my house, crawled out an upstairs window and sat on the roof (you would have to know the building to understand how this could work). Then it would just be me and God and my sandwich and the fresh air and the sky. No multi-tasking. Just eating and being aware of Divine Presence in me and around me. And sometimes my coworker friend and I would pick up some inexpensive vegetarian fare and find a bit of grass to sit on while we ate and talked and experienced a holy Presence in those lunchtime moments. A number of times lately I have thought: I’d like to do that again, to have lunch (or any meal) with God. It perturbs me that I find it so very difficult now. It seems too hard to do just one thing, to eat and be in this moment, in this experience. And so I eat while doing other things and discover that my food is gone and I barely noticed how it tasted… I received a holy Gift but made no time to savor it, to celebrate it.

After writing the above, the beginning of this essay, I took a break because I needed to cook my dinner, the dinner I would re-heat most nights this week. I had a nice time, chopping and sauteing, cooking and seasoning, with the result being some curried lentils on brown rice (it has some cauliflower and peas in it too), topped by plain yogurt with chopped cucumber in it. I also cooked up some peaches and cherries, with a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg, for dessert later. As always, this cooking project took a bit longer than I expected. It was fun giving my time and my hands to these whole (holy) foods, but I was tired by the time the preparations were finished. But I decided to do it. To have my dinner with God. I fought the temptation to read something or listen to something while eating. I just took my bowl and sat in a comfortable chair, with the ceiling fan swirling coolly overhead, allowing a quiet space for God.

Nothing dramatic happened. The food tasted good. I thought of God, but then my mind wandered. I drew my mind back and off it wandered again. And that was all right. It was a beginning, an effort to return myself to a simplicity I seem to have misplaced as my life grew and expanded. I do not regret the way my life has evolved at all. My life feels very full at times, but with that comes a richness. Yet, as I get older, I realize there may be a time coming when my life will not be so full and I will need to rediscover the richness hidden in simplicity. For it is not how much I do, but how I live that is most important... 

And so I have begun. Not some major life change. Just another little step on the journey.

If you'd like to join me, you may (no lentils required!).

Begin with something simple, something whole (holy).

Allow yourself to taste it,

To savor it, in this moment.

Allow its holiness to become part of you

as your body accepts its nourishment.

Enjoy this little step, this Gift, this moment. Enjoy who you are becoming at each step along the way.

(I am hoping to do some more writing on such things as eating, breathing and other basics of living. Watch for a link - though who knows how soon?)