Last night devotees of the popular British T.V. show, The Great British Bake-Off, watched avidly to see who would be crowned winner of the 2016 series — probably with ne’er a thought about the obesity epidemic/diabetes crisis threatening to overwhem us in the West. Food as entertainment is something we can indulge in with scarcely a ripple across the surface of our conscience. Meanwhile, just over 3,500 miles away, in Yemen, yet another teenager succumbed to starvation caused by the Saudi blockade. Food here is a matter of life and death, not to be treated lightly. A little nearer home, hundreds of migrants remained at the Calais Jungle, including over a hundred minors — some without a bed or even a meal for the night. Nearer home still, Food Banks and Shelters attempt to ensure that no one goes really hungry in Britain today; but no one knows how many people, struggling to look after their families, are sacrificing themselves to put food on the table for others. It seems we are as confused about food as we are about anything else, and the divide between rich and poor, the well-fed and the unfed, remains.
Many of us do what we can by giving regularly to charities we trust, and I would not want to underestimate the importance of that. But I think we do well to stop occasionally and examine our own attitudes to food. Some people think, mistakenly in my view, that food should be as little and horrible as possible as an expression of solidarity with those who are malnourished. Others incline to the view that food is an end in iteslf and should be as perfect and abundant as possible. Obviously, I don’t subscribe to that, either. St Benedict is hesitant about prescribing what others should eat and drink, but he does lay down a few basic principles, to ensure everyone gets enough and individual infirmities are provided for, without luxury or over-indulgence creeping in. There is, however, one important addition that is often over-looked. He sees very clearly the connection between what we do in the refectory and what we do in church. Food is a sacramental, to be received with gladness and thanksgiving; so we pray before and after eating — not long prayers, not complicated prayers, but the blessings of the hungry, giving thanks that our needs have been met and asking that we may be strengthened to do God’s will. Maybe the next time we grab a cup of coffee on the go, we could remember that. Grace is not only for high days and holy days. It is for every day, because the miracle of our sustenance is repeated over and over again.