18 May 2009

the sacramentality of food

I've blogged before about Michael Pollan's wonderfully written and fascinating book, The Omnivore's Dilemma (see here and here).

In the third part of the book, Pollan describes his quest to create a meal entirely from ingredients that he hunted, foraged, or grew: morel mushrooms he picked growing from the ashes of a forest fire, a wild boar he shot among oak trees, natural salt collected from the Bay, cherries picked from a neighbor's yard. After the effort, each ingredient and dish came with its own story, stories recollected as he sat at table together with his fellow foragers and hunters with whose help he had learned to procure the ingredients. He describes the meal:
The stories told by this little band of foragers ventured a long way from the table, the words (the tastes, too) recalling us to an oak forest in Sonoma, to a pine burn in the Sierra Nevada, to the stinky salt flats of San Francisco Bay, to slippery boulders along the Pacific coast, and to a backyard in Berkeley. The stories, like the food that fed them, cast lines of relation to all these places and the creatures living (and dying) in them, drawing them all together on this table, on these plates, in what to me began to feel a little like a ceremony. (407)
While this specific meal was uniquely "storied," with rich narrative texture and intimate knowledge of particulars, what was true of this meal is, in other and lesser ways, true of all meals. And it reveals to us the character of what we do and are as we live and feed upon the gift of God's good creation.

Our modern technology of food production may have mystified our relationship to the created world and pulled us away from the varied and complex histories that rest upon our dinner tables. But that does not make the "lines of relation" to various places and creatures any less real - though perhaps the ethical issues raised by modern food production grant bliss to our ignorance.

Though the ethics of our patterns of food production and consumption are worthy of serious reflection, I'm interested at present in the notion of food as story. The idea that what we eat connects us with other places and to larger stories about the world is central, I think, to understanding the spiritual character of eating in general and the nature of the eucharist as a sacrament in particular. Indeed, the eucharist reveals to us the ultimate meaning of eating, the way in which God's grace takes up and transforms creation.

When we, as the gathered body of Christ, share bread and wine set upon a table, we not only engage in a token, ritual meal that might nourish our bodies in some small way, but we are also caught up within a larger story that nourishes our sense of identity and community within the mission of God.

Pollan sees such dimensions even among friends gathered to consume his foraged meal. He continues:
And there's a sense in which the meal had become just that, a thanksgiving or secular seder, for every item on our plates pointed somewhere else, almost sacramentally, telling a little story about nature or community or even the sacred, for mystery was very often the theme. Such storied food can feed us both body and soul, the threads of narrative knitting us together as a group, and knitting the group into the larger fabric of the given world. (407-408)
What Pollan says of the meal he shared can be said also of the eucharist.

We can be begin by noting that the meaning of "eucharist" is thanksgiving. We rightly speak words of thanks to God over all our meals in virtue of the sheer giftedness of the world to us and the remarkable way in which God has enmeshed us as human animals within the reciprocal giving over of life, one to another, that feeds and sustains us as living organisms. In giving thanks to God, we acknowledge the sacred order he has established and so, as it were, give thanks to his creatures of vegetable, mineral, and meat that we receive unto ourselves and assimilate into our own ongoing life.

But such thanksgiving is not only a matter of words, but also enjoyment and celebration. When we tuck into a meal - savoring its tastes, breathing in its aromas, discerning its flavors, noting the blends of texture and seasoning - it nourishes our senses as much as the food nourishes our bodies. This too is a form of tangible thanksgiving, as our senses revel in the experience of food, giving themselves over to the meal.

And our thanks-filled delight is only deepened and enriched when we know something about where the food came from, its particular provenance and story, the efforts expended to procure it, and the care and attention that went into its preparation.

In the case of the eucharist, the experience of bread and wine betokens the range of complexity in human food-making. Bread reminds us of our most basic needs, the simplicity of grain, harvested from the field, refined by human labor, and worked and baked into a simple, yet nourishing and sustaining meal. That's part of the story of bread.

Wine, by contrast, comes at the end of a process: the planting of vines, their growth and development, the complexity of the grape corresponding to the age of its vine, the gathering of the clusters, and finally that grand process of crushing, fermenting, casking, aging, and blending what will become a delight to the palate and a source of relaxation to the body. And that's part of the story of wine.

In both cases, production presupposes the attainment of a certain level of social settlement and technology, of at least a period of peace and security. And yet wine goes further than bread. Where bread is a gift of nature and culture that can sustain life and labor, wine requires sustained peace that lends itself to leisure and celebration. Together bread and wine tell a story, indeed an eschatology, of movement towards wholeness and festivity.

As tokens of the created order and a present manifestation of God's reign, the eucharist points back to the establishment of the world, seen through the lens of Jesus' action at his final meal with his disciples. From there it moves us into his death and resurrection, all the while pointing forward to the fullness of God's reign, the renewal of world and of human life.

Thus, following Pollan, the church enacts a narrative in the eucharist that knits us together as a new humanity, and knits us into the larger fabric of the world made new.