16 August 2001

why food?

Why talk about food on a blog called "sacra doctrina"? Good question.

Alexander Schmemann probably gives as helpful an answer as any in his For the Life of the World (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press 1982). He writes:
...the Bible...begins with man as a hungry being, with the man who is that which he eats...nowhere in the Bible do we find the dichotomies which for us are the self-evident framework of all approaches to religion [e.g., "spiritual" vs. "material," "sacred" vs. "profane"]. In the Bible the man that eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God. The world as man's food is not something "material" and limited to material functions, thus different from, and opposed to, the specifically "spiritual" functions by which man is related to God. All that exists is God's gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man's life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this mean that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: "O taste and see that the Lord is good."

Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him...the unique position of man is that he alone is to bless God for the food and the life he receives from him. He alone is to respond to God's blessing with his blessing...the only natural (and not "supernatural") reaction of man, to whom God gave the blessed and sanctified world, is to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it and - in this act of gratitude and adoration - to know, name, and possess the world...The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God--and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the "matter," the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament. (14-15)
This is why, though animals all eat, only human beings have "cuisine." The sacred, eucharistic, and communal nature of food is inscribed into our very being, driving us to prepare food as if it were an act of worship - with the care, dignity, and art that is ordinarily reserved for sacred vestments, sacramental vessels, and the bindings of holy books. Every meal is a ritual, implicitly expressing the nature of our priestly service to the creator, either faithful or not.

And is it any wonder that in a world of Happy Meals and cheese curls that our priestly service has devolved into the Willow Creeks and Jesus jingles that fill our Sunday mornings?

So, my occasional restaurant reviews will, I hope, serve to enhance our experience of food, raise our consciousness of God's good world, and thereby elicit the proper response of thanksgiving in us as his priestly people.

Also, for an extended meditation on the role of food in human culture, I recommend Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature (Free Press 1994).