Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Of Food, and Man, and God

So I'm looking to place three aspects of my daily life under a Rule, as a sort of starter pack for Trappist family brother formation. I chose my habits of sleep, eating, and dress, and I've already committed to sleep changes. Now I turn to food.

In one way, this could be the simplest to address; after all, food shouldn't matter, should it? Jesus tells me, "Do not worry about your life, what you shall eat..." (MT 6, 25). Yet He also directs me regarding fasting: "When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden" (Mt 6, 17). So which is it, Lord? Both, of course. "Do not worry" refers to the anxious thought I might put on food for the future, a self-absorbed fretting. Fasting is not something I do for myself, but for God; and I don't "worry" about it, I do it. So eating is a valid activity to structure.

In thinking about food, I asked myself a question: Why did God create in me the need to eat? He didn't have to. It could have made me capable of finding nutrition in the air that I breathe. Or if I had to consume food, He could have made me need it only once a week, or once a month. And if I must consume food nearly daily, He could have made it as functional as urination, or blinking. But instead, He created me to need, for survival, the consumption of food that is beautiful, aromatic, and delicious. And He made me to need it several times a day.

Since He does nothing that does not tend to my good, what aspect of this most basic and sensual activity serves to draw me closer to God?

Phrased this way, the answer fairly leaps out, doesn't it. For what did he give as "food?" Natural, living things, things which themselves have a final daily reliance on God's provision. And I can take part in the nurturing of these living creatures. I can plant them, husband them, weed them, feed them, lead them to pasture. Then, in profound awareness of the life that exists for me alone, I consume them with gratitude. No wonder it was on a farm that I first discovered God!

On the other hand, I can approach the whole affair like a john deals with a prostitute: I find, I consume, I leave the money on the table. This is the process of eating out, or buying processed foods.

I became aware of this difference one day while praying the blessing before supper with my family. I have a habit of looking at my full plate as I pray and running over in my mind all that my food represents: the produce of land, of ranches, the labor of the growers, the butchers, the husbandmen, the stores, the trucks. On this particular day we were having something heavily processed.  I don't even know what the "cheese" in boxed mac and cheese is, but I was pretty sure I needn't be thankful (for that meal, anyway) to anyone in the dairy industry. I thought, "So am I thankful for the chemists?" I sat and looked at the plate and considered this a moment.

The best thing on my plate was broccoli. We'd bought it fresh and lightly steamed it. It was fragrant, bright green. I've grown broccoli. I could see the work, I know the season, the harvest. The worst thing on the plate (in this sense, at least) was the fake cheesy sauce on the macaroni. And why was I considering that to be the worst thing? Because it was the furthest removed from life. I'm not here to bash the mac and cheese folks, and there may be something organic in the ingredients that come in that foil pouch. But if so, it was way back in the production line and now, on my plate, utterly foreign to whatever life had been given up for it.

It's interesting, isn't it, that the healthiest thing on my plate was---the broccoli. The unhealthiest? That gooey orange sauce.

I know that if I want to eat what is best for my body, I will eat things as close to their natural form as possible. I also know I feel closest to God when I eat things as close to their natural form as possible. Hmmm. Could it be that that's the reason I have to eat in the first place? To know God more intimately? To participate in an essential way in the cultivation of the very life that will feed me, so that I can answer clearly that we both come directly from God?

In some excitement, I did what every 21st century seeker does: I Googled it. Not a single hit. So I phrased it as a question: Why did God make me need to eat? A vast cybersilence came back. Is there nothing on this? Perhaps not, but I'm persuaded nonetheless.

So I have attained that first critical juncture: I know why this area is appropriate for discipline. God has much to teach me in my act of eating, and I am eager to learn.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Of Sheets

In designing my rule, I was faced with a difficult first step: what could I design that would be important to my spiritual life in and of itself? I know me well enough to know that any rule I devise for its sake alone (simply to live under discipline) would fail. I'd at some point say, Well, I made it, I can break it, and it doesn't matter anyway. I needed to discover an order I could impose on parts of my life that make sense with who I am, who God is, and that would bring that me closer to that Him.

I keep an hour of adoration every Thursday morning at 1am, and I thought to work on my rule there, right before the Lord Himself.

I first listed all of my ordinary daily activities: eat, sleep, dress, parent, teach, learn, etc. Some I marked as public (like teach, or lead) and some I marked as private (like eat, or read.) I scratched the public activities off because my rule must at this stage not tempt me to pride---I need to be doing things no one can see but me and God. I marked the remainder as being secondary or basic---that left three: Eat, Sleep, and Dress. So far, so good.

My next hurdle was in deciding what pace I would keep. Again, I know myself, and I'm out here in the world with no accountability, no one watching me and helping me like I would find if I lived full-time in the monastery. So I have to go slow. What baby step could I take in each of these areas that would draw me closer to God, make sense beyond mere discipline, and be private?

Sleep seemed confusing to me at first, and a bit daunting. Scripture is full of admonitions against sloth. The saints frequently went without sleep for prayer and good works. But is sleep itself bad? Of course not! God made me to need sleep. Unfortunately, I sleep poorly. My sleep problems range from utter insomnia to days of excessive sleepiness. Both problems rob me of energy, mess up my eating habits, and leave me irritable and impaired---not a great combination for spiritual growth.

So I looked to the Rule. The monks are to sleep a reasonable amount each night---about 8 hours, in fact. So St. Benedict himself saw nothing "unholy" in a good night's sleep. So should I just ensure I get 8 hours? That hardly seems a discipline. Finally, I turned to Scripture and found the "whys" of sleep that I need to stick to a plan for my rest.

The Psalmist tells us we are to rise before the sun to give thanks and homage to God.

That makes a world of sense. When I rise "before the sun" I'm up in hours that have no real usefulness in the world. I'm up for one reason only, and that is to focus on God. And the timing is right: before I take on the troubles, cares, and distractions of the world, I need to center my soul on God, hear what He has to say to guide me, and start from there for the rest of my day. But getting up before the sun can mean one thing now, and another thing later, when I'm ready to deepen my commitment.

I decided to set my initial rising time at 5 am in the summer and fall months, and at 6 am during the spring and winter. That's earlier than I need to rise, so it's a discipline; it's not so early that I'll be sleep-deprived, or cause a disturbance for my family.

Interestingly, as I considered the changes I'd have to make, I realized that the hardest part for me wouldn't be in the morning, but in the evening when I need to turn in by 9 or 10 to get enough rest. I'm a natural night owl, and this would mean I'm going to bed a full 2-4 hours before I'd naturally choose. So the greatest discipline for me will be my schedule in the evening hours. I have to do that because, if I consider my rising time as the immovable lighthouse, I'll be exhausted pretty quickly if I don't turn in early.

That brings me to one of the more surprising realizations I had about sleep in the economy of God: it's not for me that I sleep, but for God. Only by getting sufficient rest will I be well-prepared to do His work in my family, classes, and job. So getting enough rest is something my family, coworkers, and God Himself, have a right to expect from me.

Tomorrow I'll address what I've learned about the next area of discipline: eating.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Some nights when I listen to music like "Just Breathe" or "Wild Mountain Thyme" and I look at pictures, maybe from the Hubble telescope, I begin to feel waterlogged, ready to cry when I don't know why, or over what. Bittersweet, it just washes through me and everything around me begins to seem so fragile, so poignant for its fleetingness, in the it never lasts forever and we're so close to gone sense of perspective.
God's existence becomes urgent then, because if He is not then why are we? Why am I? What point is there in all that we struggle through if God isn't designing from our brokenness a new and heart-rending whole?