In the introduction to a Book of Hours (A Treasury of Hours, Selections from Illuminated Prayer Books), on which I have been meditating of late, Dominique Ponnau, Director of L'Ecole du Louvre, advises approaching the beautiful illuminated pictures in the book as one might open a door, a door that itself opens onto an enchanted garden. She argues that a true garden is always enchanted since the garden par excellence is paradise, and suggests that in our "colorful silences," born of Listening and Seeing through this door, we go deeper into its mystery, and the "deeper we go, the deeper it gets, the more you drink it in and the more you thirst for it." I have been thinking about this door, and the portal to enchantment it may offer, in light of a host of wonderful books I have been reading of late. By enchantment, I am really speaking of the sense that heaven breaks in, that 'my bread becomes for me the very sustenance of God.' God has unleashed his Word into the world, such that we might thirst and hunger for its fulfillment in Him. The door is in part the opening of our hearts to the Presence of God, the means by which we enter the garden and walk with God in the cool of the evening.
Jean Cardinal Danielou, the French theologian, in his lovely meditation, "The Sign of the Temple," drawn from his classic, The Presence of God (I find Danielou's writing very beautiful), explores this concept. He writes that "God has in some way left creation unfinished, and man's mission is to bring it to fulfillment." Thus, Jesus, as the means of Grace through which creation is redeemed, is the new Adam, the new gardener, who has made it possible. Danielou writes that we are helped in our understanding of this, because we have been given a model for our contemplation of the mysteries of God's kingdom in the Temple, the place of divine hospitality, where together with God, we feast at his table. This concept is echoed in Jesus' farewell speech to his apostles, when he tells them he goes to prepare a place for them in his Father's house. Jesus transfigured the mysterious sign of the Temple, revealing it to be an icon of the divine hospitality, the Hospitality of God, that lies at the heart of our history and redemption.
So the Temple is an icon, a window, or a door if you will, through which we may look, to see the Real behind the real, or the Infinite beyond the finite. From the foundations of the world, God's desire has been to set a table for his children in the kingdom, to prepare a place for us in his house of glory. We begin to fulfill this destiny through our intimacy with Christ. The divine presence is no longer to be found in an enclosure of stone, it dwells in Jesus himself, established by his new covenant, through which God bestows the blessings of his presence in sacramental signs which help us to Hear and to See. At the sacramental table, Jesus has promised His Presence. Sharing bread and the wine, which invite Christ's presence in our midst, is an event by which we open the door. This temple is not a static and stationary edifice, as it once was in the time of Solomon, for that was only a temporal inheritance, a shadow cast on earth by the heavenly temple. Rather, the Temple on which our sights ought to be fixed is "the overwhelming vision of expanding universes of the spirit that should be our mental picture...thrusting out towards the heavenly regions." Jesus said "if any many thirst, let him come to me, and drink." When we feast at his table, we glimpse the temple banquet for which we were created.
If this is true, then there is a great sense in which the metaphor of the table is revealing in more than the ultimate sense of communion we will someday enjoy. Jesus, in teaching his disciples how to pray, prays what we have come to call the Lord's prayer, and as one of the intercessions, asks God to "give us this day our daily bread." How do we receive this daily bread, this sense of His promised Presence near to us when we do? Danielou argues that for now, this cosmic temple where we will feast at the table with God appears to us still in rudimentary form. We cannot plumb its mysteries, but we can see that they are there. We experience it through the sacraments, through the windows or icons into the eternal, that darkly hint at the mystery we have all experienced at one time or another: the "divine presence in the silence of the night, in the shadows of the forest, in the vastness of the desert, in the lightening-flash of genius, in the purity of love." Little by little, through our spiritual lives, lived in the material world, if we open the door and begin to see beyond it, we are being endowed with the heavenly manners that we might use at the feast of the heavenly table, preparing us for the far greater things for which we are made.
The Eucharist is The Sacrament which gives meaning to all the other sacraments of the table, and deepening our understanding and appreciation of its meaning deepens our appreciation of the delights of the table. We begin to see the table differently. So with water we are purified, bread gives us life, oil communicates power and unction, salt gives the savor of heavenly things. The table becomes an explicit act of worship and of learning to See, if only we will open the door and look. Could this be in part our daily bread, the way we learn to dwell with Him in His temple? By taking our daily bread, and oil and salt, and water and wine, by dining sacramentally at the table, we learn to dwell with him, just as a guest in our house might learn to dwell with us through the communion at our table. God has inserted a dimension of mystery into earthly events such that these events become the window or door. I believe that it is not only at communion, with the Eucharist, that we have a glimpse of this heavenly reality, but each time we break bread together in his name.
Together at the table, surely one of the earthly events "dense" with the eternal, we experience the mystery of love, poured out for those with whom we share its bounty. Love, too, is a window into the eternal. Even in the disappointments of our disfunctional, broken relationships, at table we are aware that more is possible, that this love invites us to glimpse at that for which we long, for which our hearts will find no rest until they rest in Him, as Augustine observed. We ask that God blesses the food and the time, and he does. I know this has been true in my family: dining together, we are aware that there is a greater love afoot, and we put aside our earthly hurts and hopes for a time, and allow grace to flow through us to each other. There are evenings I am amazed at how much this is so. "If we love one another, God dwelleth in us," John wrote (I John 4:12). My grandmother used to tell us that to have appetite, one had to eat a little first. Perhaps this is not unlike what Dominique Ponnau suggested when she said the more you drink it in the more you thirst. As we begin to experience love at the table, to practice loving intentionally, the door opens a little bit more and we See a little more clearly.
My spiritual director often reminds me that the heart has only one door, and if it is shut to our 'neighbor,' it is also closed to God. Or conversely, he says, there is no love of God without love for our neighbor. It is at the table, where we feed each other each day, where we take in our daily bread by celebrating His presence with us, that we begin to experience that thirst for heaven's table. Perhaps in loving each other our own souls will become conscious of that "grace of God which is otherwise, for so many, difficult to appreciate," to quote Charles Williams (a member of that illustrious Oxford group of writers of which C.S. Lewis was a member) in his insightful book Romantic Theology. This book is a most worthwhile discussion of the window into the eternal even the most earthly of loves offers, and particularly that all-too-fraught-with-difficulty manifestation of love, the mystery of marriage. And so, my friends, in my little book of hours this week, guiding my prayers, I pray that our doors might open a little bit more as we feast with those we love, so that together we might see that enchanted garden just beyond the table.
At my table tonight, hopefully to delight those I love, I am planning to grill some lamb chops, which I have marinated in a spicy mixture of cumin and thyme. These I plan to serve with some socca pancakes, those delicious chickpea flour and olive oil cakes, cooked in oil on a hot griddle and served with a savory fresh heirloom tomato sauce with garlic, mustard, basil and red wine vinegar. The rest of the menu will be rounded out, but I am thinking some grilled asparagus would be a nice complement. Happy Cooking, mes amis. A Bientot!