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.