On a summer afternoon this past summer, I received the news that my grandmother had mostly lost consciousness and, under hospice care, hovered in that mysterious space between life and death.
I had said a meaningful goodbye to her just days before, and now, 500 miles away, there was nothing left to say. I was restless on the doorway of grief and had no further capacity to work that day.
I left the office and went to a local farm stand where I purchased a $12 box of perfectly ripe apricots. For the rest of that day and into the night, I immersed myself in that box. I pitted, cut and processed those apricots into pints of jam and quarts of preserves. My daughters helped for awhile and my husband came through with a finger swipe along the inside of the pan.
By the time I went to bed that night, I had touched the fruit of the earth, marvelled at its color, smell and taste, allowed the juice to run between my fingers, and had resourcefully put away the best of the current season for a winter day months off. I had processed much more than apricots. In touching those apricots, I had touched my grandmother and all the generations before her who had done the same thing. I was healed by food that day.
Food has not always been so healing. My grandmother also passed down a complex relationship with food along with a metabolism that takes no prisoners. There has not been a day since my early adolescence where my appetite is not at war with my pant size. I am well-acquainted with the various approaches to weight loss and have participated in most of them. I have gained and lost pounds. I have done a marathon and I have been a couch potato. I have eaten a paleo diet and I have binged on junk food. At 41 years old, I no longer look for the perfect diet solution nor expect that today’s willpower will be available to me tomorrow. I have learned not to beat myself up for today’s extra slice of cake because tomorrow or the next day, I will have more capacity for restraint.
While I would love to just be done and never worry about it again, I have also come to accept that this is my “thing.” We all have a “thing” and though exegetically, it may be something much more complex, I’ve always imagined this was what the Apostle Paul meant when he bemoaned the thorn in his side that didn’t leave despite his pleading with God. We want to be rid of our thing more than anything else but it is there to teach us that in our weakness, God is strong.
But my thing is not unique. My grandmother and I are just two women in a nation full of people who struggle between the physical necessity of nutrition and the excessive desire to taste and fill our bodies and our souls in the quickest and most immediate way we know: through our mouths.
“There is only one true path, and that has to begin with God and expand both outward and inward through prayer and mindfulness, non-judgment and self-love.” says Mary DeTurris Proust in her book Cravings. Proust connects our eating habits with our fear and avoidance of this path. This is not new. Others have explored it. Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth is another excellent resource that encourages meditation and mindfulness as the only sure path through the struggle with our overgrown, misdirected appetites. But those who are willing to explore the connection between our physical and spiritual appetites trod into into sacred ground. Most of us hide our relationship with food even when our metabolism betrays us. Because we don’t talk about it, its grip grows tighter in the darkness. Proust’s vulnerable and public exploration into her relationship with food begins to let some fresh air into the dank cellar of our eating as well. Because we are suspended between the necessity of food and its excess, we need to let all the fresh air in that we can.
Proust ties our struggle with food to eucharistic theology as a way forward. Just as we set the table and set out the chalice and the bread, so we can clean the countertops and revel in the preparation of our food. Just as we perform rituals around the taking of the bread and cup, so we can stop and be mindful of the food we are eating. Just as we wait to be in community with others before we eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, so we can eat in communion with God and our souls rather than shoving food into a vacuum that will never be filled. Just as we savor the moment of receiving the bread and wine, so we can savor each bite.
The eucharist provides us with a goal that will never be consistently reached as long as soccer practices cut into dinner time, and young mothers reach for a piece of chocolate to stave off exhaustion at 4:00 in the afternoon, and writers need to munch in order to get through mental blocks. But it is a way forward. The Feast at the Table is not about deprivation and hostility towards food or ourselves, but healing and delight.
“Food should have a sacred role in our lives. It can be something we sacrifice, something we savor, something we share, and through it all we can remain filled because we are grounded in God, the only one who can satisfy our hungry hearts.” Proust’s words invite me to see food and my struggle with it–my “thing”–as an important spiritual practice. I will revisit her book on those days when the crackers in the cupboard seem like the only option to fill the restless void inside. I encourage others to read her book together and to join in community with others who are seeking to be faithful. And I will continue to explore how a box of apricots can connect my spirit to my body, healing and strengthening myself and others in this journey of life.