The Joy of Eating

This past weekend I was nested in at Holy Cross Monastery where I had been helping to lead a retreat on prayer and attentiveness with a wonderful group of folks from Langhorne, PA.  On Saturday I awoke to see a thick, blue-gray shadow covering the valley.  Snow dusted the trees and grounds of the monastery off and on throughout the day, blanketing the Hudson Valley with an arresting stillness.  The view from the refectory, where the guests and the monks eat all of their meals together, looks directly out onto the Hudson River where on a wintry day you can watch big sheets of ice travel up and down the river depending on the tide.

It is common practice to be read to from a novel, memoir, or some other kind of book during the dinner meal (which is what they call lunch at the monastery).  During the first ten minutes or so, while the guests are hungrily supping on the savory treats that Edward, the full-time chef, and his assistant Robin have prepared, one of the brothers reads into a microphone from a corner of the room.  Usually the community is allowed to converse again after the reading is over, but this Saturday the retreat house was in silence at dinner, so we all kept quiet even after the reading was over. This continued quiet gave me to opportunity to reflect a little longer than I might have otherwise on the reading we had just heard.

In the book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, James Martin discusses the essential connection between spirituality and human joyfulness.  In the chapter that we heard just a snippet from, Martin commented that more often than not the stories we have about people finding a closer spiritual connection to God happen in times of struggle or sorrow, like when we face a long-term illness or a loved-one dies, for instance.  He contended that it is a rare occasion when someone’s awareness of God is heightened in a joyful moment, or by something humorous.  When the author worked for a religious publication he said that most of the stories that were submitted for their section on spirituality dealt with adversity, rather than joy.

We did not get to the punch line of the chapter, as the brother who was reading must certainly have been thinking about the meal that was awaiting him—growing colder by the minute—but what we heard made me think about the joy we get from eating.  And so I wonder, do we think about God when we bite into a juicy, tree-ripened peach, or place a spoonful of cold, smooth gelato into our mouths?  Or how about during the first sip of coffee in the morning, or when we sit down to eat lunch with a friend?  We might have said a blessing for the food, but how do we experience God through the joy that eating brings us?

Surely we think God is with those who hunger, but I think God is with those who eat, too.  Moreover, I think the joy of eating invites us to recognize God in those moments, even if it seems like an insignificant delight, like savoring a buttery, sweet cookie, or a warm cup of tea.  God is there in that moment—our joy, when we recognize it, points the way.

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