Theology of Food and Eating
How much thought do you give to the food you eat? If you’re like most people, you or someone in your family, makes a grocery list each week. It’s likely that you think through the kinds of meals and snacks you want in the house, what you have a taste for. You might also consider what produce is available in a given season, the nutritional value of what you will make, and how much prep time is required for a given dish. But, what about God? How often does God come into your mind as you make the list? Do you consider grocery shopping and eating spiritual exercises? Do you consider God’s justice when you make food choices?
Until recently I hadn’t honestly given a great deal of theological or spiritual consideration to food beyond the Eucharist and table grace. It did come to mind as I checked out at the grocery store. Did I remember my reusable bags? It might even cross my mind when choosing between brands. Which packaging is friendliest to creation? But, little registered beyond this.
During Lent I had the opportunity to share my experience in Guatemala with the congregation. As I reflected, I found that much of the experience leaned toward a spiritual experience around eating. My eyes were opened on a mountaintop around a small table, eating with native Guatemalan Mayans. God has a great deal to do with food. Shopping for food, preparing meals, eating, and breaking bread in community can be holy acts and spiritual practices.
As I have thought through a theology of food and eating, I have found that a holy relationship to food is embedded in and expressed through our relationships with creation, with our “neighbors,” with our loved ones, and with ourselves. And, there are issues of justice, of stewardship, and of gratitude that are central to all of these relationships. A newsletter article does not lend itself toward a comprehensive look at all of these, but it is a place to start.
All of our food is an extension of creation. We were given to have dominion over the birds of the air and the animals, the plants and creeping things. We were called to be stewards. Therefore, decisions around what we eat and how that food gets to us are expressions of a sacred duty. When we purchase and prepare food, we might consider where it came from, how it was grown or raised, the practices of the companies supplying the food, whether companies care for creation in the making of their products, whether consideration was given for the needs of the earth, and consideration for life cycles of plants and animals. We might also fulfill our role as stewards through our awareness of and choices around how foods are packaged. Do products come to us in sustainable ways? Are there ways we can do better? For example, does each individual kind of produce need its own plastic bag to keep it separate in the grocery cart or might one reusable bag suffice? When we choose to eat at a restaurant or carry food out, do we really need straws and plastic tableware? Might we bring our own? Could we avoid establishments that sell food in containers that often hurt creation? This is just scratching the surface. There is much to prayerfully consider.
Food also plays a significant role in our relationships with people we see as “the other.” That so many of our neighbors, God’s children, go hungry daily is deeply troubling. How many of our siblings are shut out of markets or not given a fair wage? When we make choices about our food, we make choices about these things too. When we purchase our coffee at church, for example, we know that those who work on the farms that produce and harvest the beans are being fairly compensated so they might feed and care for their own families. What about other foods we purchase? These are spiritual and theological choices.
All considerations for a theology or spirituality of food are not tied to justice, however. Planning for, purchasing, and preparing meals for those we love can be powerful acts of prayer, blessing, thanksgiving, and even healing. It is often said that “love” is an ingredient in the dishes we make and share. I remember fondly my mother telling me that the pancakes she’d made were extra tasty because they were made with love. And, she is right. There is something of ourselves that goes into our cooking. Deeper still, I think there is something of the Spirit and God’s love that goes in too. The Holy Spirit mingling in the heart of those who grow and tend mixed with the heart of those who transport and sell mixed with those who cook and prepare. Then, the Spirit is present with us as we eat. Whether we eat alone or with others, the love of God is present to us in tangible form nourishing and sustaining us. Around a table with family or friends, new and old, God is present as we “break bread,” sharing deeply of our lives and ourselves with one another. Meal times can truly be sacred time.
All this brings me back to my original question. How much thought do we give to the food we eat? This article is indeed the tip of a much larger iceberg, but growing, harvesting, shopping, preparing, eating are holy, especially when we are mindful of God’s presence. All of these can indeed be spiritual practices. The spirituality of food is undeniable, even when we are distracted and take it for granted. Given all of the above, food becomes spiritual practice when we are aware and our hearts are moved. It becomes spiritual practice when we recognize how much of God’s love and justice is present in the food we eat, even when we don’t know. Such recognition can be overwhelming. We could drive ourselves mad trying to untangle the paths our food makes to us. Yet, I don’t think God desires that we make ourselves crazy. Rather, I think God desires that we approach food and eating with reverence and awe. Awe at the magnificence of creation, that the earth was created to nurture and nourish. And, reverence that we live in a broken world that makes it nearly impossible to address all the justice issues behind food so there is sacrifice in the food that comes to us. With reverence and awe then we give thanks for what we have been given. We do our best to prayerfully make just choices for our brothers and sisters and for the earth. We allow our hearts to be full as we eat together, seeing the face of God around the tables where we gather. We pray for the brokenness even as we give thanks for the abundance of what we have been given.
A Grace Before Meals
As we begin this meal with grace, let us become aware of the memory carried inside the food before us: the quiver of the seed awakening in the earth, unfolding in a trust of roots and slender stems of growth, on its voyage toward harvest, the kiss of rain and surge of sun; the innocence of animal soul that never spoke a word, nourished by the earth to become today our food; the work of all the strangers whose hands prepared it, the privilege of wealth and health that enables us to feast and celebrate. --John O’Donohue