The One About Food | February 26, 2021

Weekend Digest 2021:06
26 February 2021

My fellow Lenten pilgrims —

I ate lunch at my desk on Wednesday. Right after mass, I had a call with the wardens followed by a Zoom call with diocesan clergy, so I didn’t have time to run up the hill to eat at the Rectory. But that’s actually good for me — 

Because home is where the Girl Scout cookies are.

If you’re following along in our St. B’s at Home: A Lighter Lent booklet, you’ll know each week of Lent, we practice some form of abstinence together. We call it a common “fast,” although technically to “fast” is to refrain from eating food, while to “abstain” is to do without or avoid something, like chocolate or alcohol, for instance. (The more you know).

Or without my kids’ Girl Scout cookies.

This week’s “fast” is from sweets. Our guide reminds us this week to “resolve to avoid any type of sweets or dessert . . . no latte in the morning or no chocolate in the evening. Notice what happens inside when you are denied something you’ve become accustomed to or something you really want.” It’s actually not a particularly difficult week for me because I don’t like sweets much anyway (except for some forms of the aforementioned GSCs). But it did get me to thinking about food, which does come up again and again in Lent, so — this week’s Di·gest is the One about Food.

First, though, a note about not eating — about fasting. I practice two types of “fasting” in my normal life — the “Eucharistic fast,” which is an old catholic practice purportedly dating to the earliest centuries of the church. Pope Pius XII gave some history in his 1953 apostolic constitution, Christus Dominus:

From the very earliest time, the custom was observed of administering the Eucharist to the faithful who were fasting. Toward the end of the fourth-century fasting was prescribed by many Councils for those who were going to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice. So it was that the Council of Hippo in the year 393 issued this decree: ‘The Sacrament of the altar shall be offered only by those who are fasting’ . . . . At the beginning of the fifth century this custom can be called quite common and immemorial . . . . Abstinence from food and drink is in accord with that supreme reverence we owe to the supreme majesty of Jesus Christ when we are going to receive Him hidden under the veils of the Eucharist. And moreover, when we receive His precious Body and Blood before we take any food, we show clearly that this is the first and loftiest nourishment by which our soul is fed and its holiness increased. Hence St. Augustine gives this warning: ‘It has pleased the Holy Ghost that, to honor so great a Sacrament, the Lord’s Body should enter the mouth of the Christian before other food.’

So I don’t consume anything except water or medicine (and I broadly define “water” to include “coffee” — he says, embarrassed) for at least an hour (usually three) before going to mass. It’s not for everybody, but I’ve been doing it so long I couldn’t stop now if I wanted.

The second fast I practice regularly is fasting from meat on Fridays in Lent. I sometimes dream of bringing the old-fashioned Friday Fish Fry to St. B’s! (Check out my man at around the 1-minute mark of this clip pondering “I thought, like, man, I’m gonna have to live forever in Wisconsin now?”) In fasting, abstinence from food and sometimes from drink, as Dallas Willard says, “will certainly demonstrate how powerful and clever our body is in getting its own way against our strongest resolves.” Willard in The Spirit of the Disciplines:

Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food. Through it, we learn by experience that God’s word to us is a life substance, that it is not food (“bread”) alone that gives life, but also the words that proceed form the mouth of God (Matt. 4.4). We learn that we too have meat to eat that the world does not know about (John 4.32, 34). Fasting unto our Lord is therefore feasting — feasting on him and on doing his will.

There’s nothing like fasting to throw our hungers into relief. That’s why Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote her poem, “Feast”:

I drank at every vine. 
The last was like the first.
I came upon no wine
So wonderful as thirst.
I gnawed at every root.
I ate of every plant.
I came upon no fruit
So wonderful as want.
Feed the grape and the bean
To the vintner and the monger;
I will lie down lean
With my thirst and my hunger.

We lie down lean, and we learn something about ourselves. We learn that really all our hungers are pointers, in a way — my hunger for those Girl Scout cookies points to my deepest hunger, the hunger for God. 

The second most important book to my development as a Christian (behind the Bible, of course) is Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World. Interestingly, I recommend it to folks all the time, and it almost never delivers the same bang for the buck to them as it did to me. But I love it! And I go back to it time and time again. One of my favorite parts is about human hunger, something so base as to seem primal and disconnected from anything holy and “spiritual” like Christianity, but it’s the foundation for Fr. Schmemann’s religious worldview. He writes (excuse the gender-specific language; he wrote back in the 1960s):

In the Bible the food that man 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 means 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 the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for him. To be sure, man is not the only hungry being. All that exists lives by “eating.” The whole creation depends on food. But the unique position of man in the universe 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 . . . . And in the Bible to bless God is not a “religious” or a “cultic” act, but the very way of life. God blessed the world, blessed man, blessed the seventh day (that is, time), and this means that He filled all that exists with His love and goodness, made all this “very good.” So the only natural reaction of man, to whom God gave this 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. 

Yes! Everything in the world is God’s gift to us, and it’s all there to make God known to us and to become the medium of our communion with God! Everything — from the fish at the fish fry and the bottomless Brandy Old Fashioned, to the caress of a child or a friend’s hug; from the fancy cheese Fr. Travis used to go on and on about, to the fancy coffee Dave Madeira keeps trying to sneak into the parish kitchen (I’m a Dunkin’ man); from the Cavendish Blend No. 432 from Peretti’s in Boston that goes in my pipe (in moderation, of course), to the smell of the sea or freshly mown grass — all of it, gift. All of it, leading our hearts to home. A trail — to God. 

That’s why I fast — to remind me what those hungers are really for. But I should add — fasting doesn’t make God love me more. It doesn’t contribute to my salvation, so to speak. Robert Farrar Capon knew that. He was an Episcopal priest in New York State, and before he died in 2013, he wrote eloquently about grace. And about food. In Light Theology and Heavy Cream, he said as much: “God has arranged for salvation on the basis of no contests at all: not in singing, not in cooking, not in starving — not even, I might add, in deportment.” A little later in the book, he says that even my much-beloved lobster (a fave of my youngest, Flannery’s, and mine) can still be a fasting meal. Listen to this:

Why, I could starve myself stone cold to death and still fall short . . . . The world’s miseries are tractable only to God’s grace, not my merits. A lobster, obediently ingested, can remind me of that as well as anything else, eaten, or not eaten, on the same principle.

So whether we eat or we drink, we do it for the glory of God. Any meal, “obediently ingested,” can be a vehicle for grace. That’s just wonderful if you ask me!

One last point — and you know it’s gotta be Eucharistic, right? Before moving to Nashville, every church I’d ever served had been a “daily mass parish.” Someone celebrated the Holy Eucharist in those places every single day of the week. And I wanted St. Bartholomew’s to be a daily mass parish at some point, as well. It only took a global pandemic for me to make it happen! But now St. B’s is a place where “the holy sacrifice of the mass is offered daily,” which is another way of saying “we go to church every day in this place!” My 3-times-a-week saintly mama and daddy, God rest their souls, ain’t got nothing on us Episcopalians.

I can tell you that doesn’t make life easier for your clergy. Take an hour-plus out of every weekday, set up, pray the prayers (we do that part even if nobody but us shows up), preach every single time (one of my mentors used to say “Preach every time you get ‘em in the room. They’re a captive audience.”), clean up after — it’s not an insignificant commitment of time in the middle of a workday. So why was that so important to me when I came here? Two reasons:

One, it changed my life. Nothing — I mean nothing — poured more fuel on the fire of my walk with Jesus than when I first started assisting at Eucharist daily. It’s part of my rule of life to go as many times as I reasonably can in a given week. To hear those stories, pray those prayers, stand/sit/kneel, hold out empty hands (or an open mouth) for the Bread of Life — it’s literally a gospel-delivery-mechanism for the whole body.

And second — and more importantly — it’s the single most important act of the church. Period. The Eucharist is. The “do this in remembrance of me” bits of the gospels. It’s the still point of the turning world, to steal Eliot’s phrase. That’s why I prefer it a little more formal than other folks do, perhaps; a little more encumbered with movement and ceremony and color (and incense); a little fancy, a little heavy, dreadful even (from the KJV of Genesis 28.17) — a service with gravitas. I want us to walk out and think “What in the world just happened in there?”Because it’s the most important thing in the world! It’s where we’re guaranteed God is showing up, every time. The Blessed Sacrament works ex opere operato — “from the work, worked.” Regardless of whether Serena or Charlie or I might happen to be “evil ministers,” the sacrament bears grace to those who “by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them.” (Article XXVI, Articles of Religion, tucked away in your BCPs on p. 867ff). 

Which brings me, at last . . . to lembas bread (see photo above). 

You can thank Phil the Fellow for this — he reminded me of it this morning. Remember in the Lord of the Rings; the elves made a concoction called “Lembas” — a kind of thin corn cake wrapped in leaves (folks have even come up with recipes for it, like here. It’s seldom given to any non-elves, but Frodo and Sam and their fellows are given some at one point for their perilous journey. “Eat a little at a time, and only at need,” they’re told. “For these things are given to serve you when all else fails.” 

You know where I’m going here.J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic. In one of his letters, he acknowledged that a reader had insightfully seen “in waybread (lembas) = viaticum and the reference to its feeding the will and being more potent when fasting, a derivation from the Eucharist.” (By the way, viaticum is the term for the Holy Eucharist administered to someone in extremis, at the very cusp of death. It’s part of the Last Rites and provides “bread for the journey” through death and into the arms of Jesus) Lembas was to be eaten daily (Daily Mass!). It was more potent if it was all the food you had (the Eucharistic Fast!). In The Return of the King, as Frodo and Sam are close to the end of their arduous trek, Tolkien writes this:

The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die . . . . This waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travelers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.

For Tolkien, “the only cure for sagging or failing faith is Communion” (letter 250). It’s the only food for our real hunger because it is the very Body, Blood, Soul, Divinity, Substance, Stuff of our Lord Jesus. He is really present at our altar. And he’s really present with you — whether your faith is flourishing or flagging. He is the bread that strengthens us to endure, to master sinew and limb, to take up our cross and follow.

Hungry yet?

I know something even better than Girl Scout cookies.

If you’re looking for distraction this weekend — here’s just a couple of bullets about what I’m consuming (“consuming”  — see what I did there?):

  • Continuing in the food vein — Few shows have caused as much joy in the Woodhouse for adult and child alike as “Nailed It” – Amateur bakers compete to recreate edible masterpieces for a handsome cash reward in a show billed as “part reality show, part hot mess.” I seldom laugh out loud at TV, but I do watching this!
  • Kendall Vanderslice’s Edible Theology blog is such a treat — she purports to write about the nexus “where the communion table meets the dinner table” and the role of food in spiritual formation (remember the masts of the Barque?!). In her recent entry, Issue 26: “From Flour You Come,” she touched on Lent and how it’s God’s chance to “meet us in our lack, our heartache, our longing, and our need.” She’s not giving up anything at all this Lent because we’ve all given up so much this last year — “I’m at a place of emptiness already,” she says, “and ready for God to join me here.”

Thanks, as always, for reading. You’ve been in my prayers all week, and may God bless you this weekend. May I close with a few more words from Kendall Vanderslice? 

God longs to meet you in your emptiness right now too. Will you recognize your own hunger with me?

Consider that an invitation —

Fr. Sammy

Published by Fr. Sammy Wood

Interim Rector of St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church in Times Square

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