The Table an Altar

For several months we have been treated to a slew of statistics about the rates of obesity in the U.K.  We are all getting fatter, some of us dangerously so. The Guardian’s Comment is Free section has made this subject its own. Thus, in August, Catherine Hughes argued that there was an ingrained institutional prejudice against the obese. In October Jamie Oliver waxed angry about the government’s anti-obesity strategy. In November Sarah Warwick made a case for exercise being as important as restricting food intake, while earlier this week Zoe Williams maintained that obesity is a consequence of poverty, not lack of moral fibre. Not surprisingly, all the articles have generated a lot of comment about what we eat and how.

Now, what do I find interesting about this? Time was when we weren’t obese, we were merely fat, and that was bad enough. The whiplash-thin adults of my childhood and youth had all experienced the hunger of the War years. Anyone who wasn’t slim was suspected of Billy Bunter tendencies with cream buns: a figure of fun rather than moral condemnation. Since then we have moved through the era of the celebrity chef, T.V. programmes and magazines devoted entirely to cooking, and a vast proliferation of the foods available on supermarket shelves. Gone are the days when olive oil came from the chemist, with a B.P. standard assurance on the label, and garlic and lemons were hunted down with difficulty. We live in the midst of abundance, but it is not an abundance equally available to all, and though we can work wonders in the kitchen we do not see the link with worship. Food is no longer sacred, no longer a gift of God to be celebrated as well as enjoyed.

Drawing on Jewish tradition, Martin Buber had some fine things to say about eating in holiness, making an altar of the table. I wonder how many people do that today? Is eating merely a way of fuelling our bodies? In the monastery, meals are ritualised because the refectory is seen as an extension of the choir. The rhythm of fast and feast is built into the liturgical year and most communities have supplemented this with local customs. For example, we eat scones when the Elijah cycle is being read and cherries when we celebrate the feast of St Etheldreda. We are approaching the great midwinter feast of Christmas. Most of us will be celebrating with family or friends and eating and drinking with great cheerfulness. Maybe we should give a little thought to making our feasting into an act of worship. It isn’t obesity we need to fear so much as forgetfulness. Jesus our Saviour was born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, and gives himself to us today under the form of Bread and Wine. Every meal is a reminder of that.

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Vacare Deo

With the week-end approaching, it is worth spending a few moments thinking about the old monastic injunction vacare Deo, to make space for God. The Cistercian equivalent is the otium sanctum, holy leisure, which St Bernard characterised as otium negotissimum, very busy leisure. How do we make space for God in our lives? What kind of sacred leisure should our lives contain?

The first thing to note is that making space is not the same as doing nothing. Doing nothing worried St Benedict, for example, who saw it as idleness and the enemy of the soul. Making space for God, by contrast, is more a change of gear, adopting a slightly different focus. We make space for God by attending to him. That may mean we have to think about what we do, but it doesn’t mean that we necessarily stop doing things. Have you ever thought of inviting God into your week-end activities, for instance? Of course prayer and reading the scriptures matter, but so do the other activities in which we engage. Time spent with others is not time stolen from God unless we are selfish and self-indulgent about it.

I sometimes think that one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to create a God in our own image and likeness: exacting, a bit of a policeman, rather a killjoy, if truth be told. Yet in Jesus we see a much more attractive image of God, one who taught us to expect miracles at parties and holiness among the outcasts of society. The whole week-end, not just Sunday, can be filled with God. We just have to make space for him.

 

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St Francis as viewed by a Benedictine

If you go to Subiaco, where St Benedict lived as a hermit before deciding that coenobitic monasticism was a safer option for the rest of us, you will see one of the earliest paintings of St Francis in the chapel of St Gregory. The saint is shown without stigmata or halo, suggesting that it was executed during his lifetime. Interestingly, one eye is larger than the other, reminiscent of the icon of Christ at St Catharine’s Monastery, Sinai. Another fresco shows Cardinal Ugolino, later Pope Gregory IX, consecrating the chapel. A friar stands behind him. In my view, it is St Francis again, so perhaps he was present at the consecration. (Sadly, I can’t show you any photos as those we have are the Subiaco community’s copyright.)

These two images seem to me to tipify the Benedictine view of St Francis. He is recognized as being a kindred spirit although the way of life he drew up for his friars is very different from that of monks. He is also recognized as a holy man while yet alive. I think that says something important about both forms of religious life, something we may lose sight of as we bustle about doing our various good works today.

Benedictines sometimes forget the years Benedict spent in his cave, alone with God. Franciscans sometimes forget the saint of the stigmata, who was anything but sentimental. Both were men of huge compassion, open to the new, their lives rooted in prayer. Benedict probably was not a priest, Francis was a deacon; neither was in the least ‘clerical’ in the bad sense. Both had a tremendous sense of the holiness of God and his endless creativity. That portrait of St Francis in the heart of a Benedictine holy place is an encouragement to all of us to open our eyes and see what God is doing now.

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A Morning Walk

This morning the dog took us for a walk through the lambing fields and along the edge of a coppice before returning via the Hendred brook and under the trees. Nothing very remarkable in that, you may think, but oh, how wrong you’d be! It was one of those ‘anonymous’ mornings — not very sunny, but warm and bright, like a thousand other mornings. The grass was thick and high, the cow parsley jostling with buttercups and one or two lingering bluebells. Wrens and finches appeared in abundance, all going about their lawful occasions, while red kites wheeled overhead with their peculiar mewing cry. We glimpsed a hare and smelled where a fox had lain; the ewes called after their lambs and the lambs, very properly, ignored their mothers, save when a trip to the milk bar seemed in order. It was all very ordinary and all very extraordinary at the same time. The Psalmist understood this well when he wrote of the landscape of Israel with its rabbits and goats and doves and swallows. ‘Let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord.’ This morning, I rather think it did.

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