Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Feeding as Prayer

Most of you won't have been to the retreat I spoke at last fall so I wanted to share this with you. Great Lent, like all fasting periods. is often a time of vulnerability for us. It is easy to feel small and weak and what we need to remember is that this is really what Christ asks us.

Ancient Faith Women’s Retreat
Antiochian Village, November 2018

Ora et Labora.

This is a Latin phrase which means, “Pray and Work”, as in a command to pray and to work. This phrase is meant to remind us that while we must live and move in the world, our home is actually Heaven and we should always direct our material work in that direction. It tends to conjure up images of monastics busy in sunlit fields and engaging God with the corners of their minds while their hands work.

Monks keeping bees.
Nuns hoeing gardens.
Birds, and sun, and wind, and rain.

It is a way to clothe our manual work for our material needs with the flesh of deeper spiritual wisdom thus connecting our physical selves with our spiritual selves. All too often though, we forget that all the tiny movements of our lives also qualify, especially those not found in sunlit corners. Things like cooking meals for our families become in our fantasies something like Babette’s Feast, we in the kitchen sampling the wine for the meal as the doves are delivered by a rosy-cheeked boy. Reality is rougher around the edges and, in my own life, finds me in the kitchen sampling the lentils on the stove while a recalcitrant preschooler cries over the color of her cup. Finding the manner in which I can pray without ceasing is a mental exercise of turning over those lentils and cups to God in a way that is fundamentally material and perhaps not obviously spiritual. It is not surprising that the way I consider this activity is through the lens of food.

Food is the center of my life. I buy it and cook it and serve it and write about it and talk about it with others. Without meaning to, I often end up reading books and watching movies with food as a major theme. It is how I engage the material world with my hands. It is often how I engage people since I end up offering to cook for people as a way of sharing myself with them. If I meet you someplace, I will invite you and your mother and her neighbor for dinner. I suppose this is why I have never been fond of the lesson of Mary and Martha in the Bible. Modern women, myself included, spend a great deal of time breaking down and unpacking the relationships between these sisters, to their brother Lazarus, theirs to Christ, and then even to ourselves individually and collectively. As much as we try,  in the end, we tend to learn nothing about anything, especially ourselves. Ultimately who these women were and are and what they mean for other women is complicated. Christianity often is.

Christ Himself sanctified our human experience and made it holy, or at least gave it the opportunity—the possibility of holiness, by living in the Flesh. He ate and drank and gave others food and drink, and even directed us to do the same. When we feed the least of His children, we feed Him. To purposefully engage the people of God with bread, stew, and wine seems to be the proper way of putting ora et labora in action since it is a literal fulfillment of the commandment of Christ to feed others. I think this is why there is some sting to the analysis of  Mary and Martha, at least for me. We still have the physical need for food and in following His command, she fed not just ordinary people but God in the flesh. Who greater to serve? I am a lesser Martha, busy shuffling in the kitchen and covering over my bare, uncomfortable humanness; looking for that blanket of spirituality. I want to find sanctity and holiness and I want to find it in the comfort I feel in cooking, to find hope poured over like chocolate ganache. I do not understand what God calls me to do let alone how. Like Martha, I cannot bring myself to not work, to not think, to not cook. My ill-used hands are clumsy and forget their wisdom until I put them to work doing the things that they know so well.

Chopping onions.
Slicing garlic.
Kneading dough.

I realize that I do not know how to serve God, all I know how to do is to make dinner. I can measure out my joy, my pain, and my grief and turn these into something that I can feed others, that I can nourish others with because I don’t want to keep these emotions inside myself. I can instead release them out into the world and cover other people’s material needs with my spiritual ones. The emptiness is at times palpable, the loss I feel when I don’t know the things to say or do or my fear that I won’t hear the voice of God, and so I feed others from the only well that I have. I make dinner.

Still lost, I am comforted when I think of the death and resurrection of Lazarus. Martha may not have understood how to stop and be still in the presence of the Son of the Living God but she knew who He was and was not afraid to speak to Him, to tell Him what she needed. When Lazarus died, she left Mary at home and went out to meet Christ and to expose her broken humanness to Him. In that moment, she chose the greater thing.  Perhaps this is all I need to remember, that all He asks is that I give to Him my own brokenness. I fail to choose the greater thing in many small moments, I cannot count them out with each lentil and each cup and each night that passes and I let them slip through my fingers. Perhaps all I can do is show myself to God to allow Him to cover over both my material and spiritual weaknesses with the strength of His love. Today I make dinner. Today I work so that one day I may learn to pray.