The Charity of Dinner

Emily Heyne // Genius of the Call


August 24  

“We consider all food as preparation for the Eucharist,” explained my friend, who at the time, was a novice in the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist. “So, we don’t mindlessly snack, and we always have to use a plate, since all food has come to us by means of a sacrifice.” 

Since that first visit to the Sisters fifteen years ago, I’ve thought often about her words—and more often about the Sisters’ homemade jam and freshly baked bread. But there they have remained, delicious in my thoughts, but only, it seems, in my thoughts, while my lived reality of getting food into the bellies of small bodies seems far removed from any sort of Eucharist theology, and that homemade jam and bread an equally disparate notion. As I’ve picked up brown banana peels and granola bar wrappers from in between car seats, I’ve thought how lovely it would be to so conform my ways that I, and by extension my children, would approach all food with reverent and thankful hearts, that instead of tossing oranges out to h-angry children as if I were feeding barking seals, we would pause to recall the bread of life discourses with every morsel. Well, one can dream, I think, as I vacuum up the cracker crumbs from the floorboards.

But far from being discouraged, I was edified in my ideals recently as I read Thomas Howard’s Hallowed Be This House: Finding Signs of Heaven in Your Home. He, too, shares the eucharistic vision of the Franciscan Sisters and likens the ceremony of the dining room—the candles, placemats, table settings —to the ceremony of the Mass. He locates it not in the convent but in the family home: This room says, in effect, that the common, daily, necessary business of eating is just that—common, daily, and necessary—but it is also a picture of the thing that lies at the root of all life; namely, the principle of exchange. My Life for Yours. We enact that principle whenever we assemble and sit down at the table . . . We are participating in the holy mystery.

Alas, the rite of the holy mystery at my home rarely feels holy or mysterious. Mere seconds pass before someone disparages the food, spills a drink, or has to use the restroom. Table manners are a work in progress, and construction has been slow. Nevertheless, I kept reading Howard’s words and was particularly encouraged by the next chapter on “The Kitchen.” Here, he extends the eucharistic vision to what necessarily follows: that the one working in the kitchen embodies the great paradox found in what he calls the “Drama of Charity”: 

When the Drama of Charity was played out on the stage of our history,  . . . we saw Love incarnate in the form of a servant; here we heard the disquieting doctrine of exchanged life proclaimed all over the hills of Judea . . . a riot of self-giving and glory, humiliation and exaltation, service and majesty.

Household life, says Howard, regularly celebrates these mysteries of Charity, for the work within a household, though obscure and menial, is a form of service . . . of love offered to others, and it is the kitchen of a home wherein this love is best practiced:

The service in [the kitchen] is either pointless thralldom or it is as close to the center of the Real Drama as any rite in the whole household. For it is precisely service; and service, occurring as it does always for the sake of something else, is a form of humility and self-giving; and humility and self-giving have been disclosed in the Christian Drama as being at the heart of the matter.

Humility and self-giving. Yes, my two-year-old helper licked the raw chicken while my back was turned and dropped a spice jar on my foot tonight. My reactions were not charitable. But I will let him back on the stool tomorrow and don my apron a bit more reverently. Because, as Howard says, The household duties of love are very much like our human existence itself: glorious and sparkling when you think of the big things—Creation and Resurrection and the Vision of God; but handed to us from hour to hour, year to year, in muted, plain forms. Sometimes, in the form of spice jars, eggshells, and a dash of patience.

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