Thursday, September 22, 2011

Nature and Grace (The Heavenly Banquet)

Over the course of the last year, I have been reading a group of French theologians who are loosely grouped together. Their work is largely characterized as "nouvelle theologie."  In many respects this has been a watershed experience for me, as it has allowed me to come home, in a sense, and make sense of my heritage and the impact of my part-American, part-European upbringing. Taken together, these theologians are sometimes referred to as calling for a "ressourcement" or retrieval of the "Great Tradition," which simply means the consensus of the Church fathers and medieval theologians that as God made us alive in Christ, so too, do we then participate in heavenly realities while still here on earth, such that in our lives on earth, we can actually participate in heavenly realities.  Without belaboring the philosophical underpinnings, which reach back to Plato, this really means to recover the sense that in the Created world exists more than simply signs or symbols of the heavenly realm; these signs actually point to heaven breaking in.  After the middle ages, thinking began to change and a view that nature and the supernatural (Grace) were strictly separated emerged.  This coincided with what began to be the strict separation of philosophy (literally, philo the love, and sophia, of wisdom) and theology (defined by Augustine as theo, meaning God and logia, reason, reasoning or discussion concerning the Deity).   Said another way, Grace, or the supernatural world, was not able to build on something already present in nature itself; rather, the supernatural world of grace was entirely foreign and other to the world of nature.

These proponents of "nouvelle theologie," in seeking to recover the unity of nature and grace, argued that true reality does not regard the world of nature (our "city" on earth) as separate from the supernatural (the heavenly "city"), but as the gracious gift of the Creator.  For them, the world of nature is never without God's presence.  God reveals this presence through sacraments, "life infused symbols of the heavenly realm, such that we understand reality as beginning with theology.  This view begins with the assumption that what we see around us is the gift of God.  Saint Augustine and most of the thinkers of the middle ages had regarded the created world as a world full of symbols. These were not just symbols in the sense that they suggested some  other reality, rather in the sense that symbol and reality were not two separate entities.  These theologians call for a recovery of the view held by Augustine that these symbols functioned as sacraments in the sense that a sacrament shares or participates in the reality to which it points. Heaven literally breaks in. The sign may not be the reality but it participates in it.

It occurs to me that this view of life fundamentally impacts how we view our approach to the table.  Thinking about this as I walked this morning, it came to me that beyond the obvious issues of the Eucharist, or communion as a sacramental feast wherein God is Present, if this is the case, even the breaking of bread together each night at dinner is more than simply a symbol of the good God has woven into creation.  Embracing this view suggests a reverence for the bounty and gift of the table not often part of our culture in the fast-paced grab it and run approach to meals.  If food is a gift, our approach to eating and  sharing it changes fundamentally. No longer is it simply a commodity that seeks to harness "the elaborate process of growing, harvesting, transporting, selling, transporting again, storing, eating, digesting, and clearing that constitutes the elaborate process of being fed," argues the theologian Samuel Wells in his book God's Companions.  Rather, it invites in us a thankfulness and an understanding of all the labor and the relationships and the gift of life and growth involved in bringing food to the table.

This has significant implications for participating together in the source of our food and those who grow it for us, for getting to know the people who grow our food, for the respect we show them and friendship we offer them.  Rather than seeing it, and them, as commodities in a mechanized process, we might begin to view ourselves as partners with farmers, learning from them and supporting them, and treating their labor and its fruits with the respect it deserves.  Secondly, it has significant implications for our respect for the earth as God's creation, for learning where our food is grown and how it is produced, and that the practices are humane and sustainable.  Third, as we learn to cook and eat in harmony with the seasons, we are more appreciative of the bounty we receive as gift, coming from all that is good God has given us.  We allow the creation to inspire us, to see in its art possibility for the art we might make of this abundance, especially as it is shared. How much more reverential than forcing the transport of unripe produce from some distant place where there can be no connection with either those who grow it or the seasons of our year? Fourth, respecting food means learning to cook without waste, and making the most of all we are given. Fifth, living sacramentally in this way has implications for cooking with our hearts, such that we respond to the Gift of such bounty by embracing all it might offer us.  Food is precious, and should never be taken for granted. Sixth, this view has implications for cooking and eating together: by including our family and friends and especially our children in the growing, preparing and serving of food, we and they appreciate its value and the great pleasure it can give.  Finally, and most importantly, it has implications for eating together: for the way we set the table with great care, for understanding its potential to bring pleasure and communion, so that "mealtime is a time for empathy and generosity, a time to nourish and communicate," advises Alice Waters, the chef who founded the restaurant Chez Panisse, and revolutionized  our approach to food and cooking in the United States.

Wells argues that one of the most important symbols (or a sacrament, for icons help us to peer into Reality, like a window) of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is the Rublev icon, known as the "Hospitality of Abraham," which depicts three divine persons gathered around a table for a meal together.  There is an empty place on the viewer's side of the table, which seems to offer an invitation to come and dine.  The heavenly banquet is the most characteristic symbol of the life of the Kingdom, and Jesus himself enacts these banquets himself in his many significant meals with sinners, strangers, crowds and disciples. These are invitations to join the feast with God.  By approaching food and the table sacramentally, we affirm the opportunity to grow productively and celebrate the reward for joyful labor.  We join in the feast of the Kingdom. Wells writes: "The heavenly banquet is a depiction of the way God does not just simply meet his people's basic needs: he goes much further, giving them far more than they need, surrounding them with food, friends and his own abundant presence, all in all. This is the purpose of creation, cross and the resurrection: to make possible this everlasting friendship with God, rehearsed in worship and practiced in the sharing of food, "   In the fullest sense, to dine together in this way is sacramental living. It is to participate in the great mystery of  the heavenly reality while still on earth.

And now, my friends, what will follow tomorrow is a suggestion and instructions for making a simple offering that you might share with your family for dinner if you wish.  Come back and see if you might like to try it. I will give you an autumn pasta to make from scratch if you like, using 00 flour, or all purpose if you can't locate the finer grind Italian pasta flour.  It will be a celebration of the solstice, the autumnal equinox, which we observe tomorrow. A bientot, mes amis!

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