Not long before he died the late Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, delivered an address about Christian culture. He stressed that in the wake of the collapse of Christendom, Christians had to create “a new art of living.” By this he meant that when the culture has lost most of its Christian sign posts it is up to Christians to create, in their own families and communities, an art of living that is reflective of the Gospel and the Catholic tradition handed down through the ages. There are many ways in which this can be done, but one of the simplest is in the most basic of daily activities, eating and drinking.
Catholics have recently been through the annual season of fasting, Lent, and are currently in the annual season of feasting, Easter. Eating and drinking have always played an important role in Christian culture stemming from the Jewish roots from which it grew. We sustain our bodies by eating. But eating is not just about the body, it affects the soul. We are not just animals, we are rational animals, animals with a soul. What, how, and how much we eat is important.
Feasting and fasting are universal rituals of religion, especially Catholicism. The fast is a prelude to the feast: a distancing from created goods to focus more fully on the Creator Himself. The fast is necessary to truly appreciate the created goods of the feast. The feast is equally important as it also brings the splendour, beauty, and joy of the liturgy into the home. When we celebrate Christ’s Birth, His Resurrection, His Ascension; or when we celebrate Mary’s Assumption, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the feast of a patron saint, the anniversary of a Baptism, we should continue the liturgical celebration with a meal that is worthy of the feast celebrated.
The Church offers us so many feasts so that we may be reminded of God’s glory and love for us. The perfect setting for such a feast is the family meal. The meal thus becomes the setting where God can be glorified, His beauty truly reflected and celebrated. It is through the meal that the liturgy of the Church can live in the home. This means that through the meal the liturgical seasons can be observed with great beauty and joy. For example, during Lent the family meal is simpler as each member learns to distance himself from created goods so that spiritual goods – conversion – can take place. What we do not eat is important because it is liturgical; it brings us closer to God.
Even when a family meal is not connected to a liturgical feast it should, however simple it may be, reflect the glory of the Creator and His creation. Food is truly a gift and our cooking, presentation and eating of it should be an act of thanksgiving. A home-cooked meal becomes a gift through its preparation and presentation. The Latins have much to teach us as they see the meal truly as a work of art: full of colours and life.
The setting of the table is also important for if the meal is truly sacred we must dress the table. This sacredness may very well be simple, but the beauty of the setting can be found in its order and aesthetic taste. St Benedict in his rule encourages the cellarer to “regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected.” Gratitude and respect are also part of the family meal: gratitude to God, to the one who prepares a meal, and the need to remember those who do not have. This touches on the importance of not wasting food, appreciating what one has, and developing tastes for food that we may not naturally like.
The significance of food and feasting is beautifully played out in Gabriel Axel’s film, Babettes Gæstebud (Babette’s Feast, 1986), based on the short story by Karen Blixen.
The story revolves around two pietistic sisters, daughters of a prophetic protestant Pastor whose community is very austere. One sister, who sings beautifully, had stopped singing lessons at a young age as the lyrics and tone of the western musical canon, though beautiful, were too sumptuous for her (and her father’s) religious sensibilities.
When older, the sisters take in a French maid, Babette, a famous Parisian chef who was exiled from France. After many years of hospitality in the service of the sisters, Babette, after falling into some good fortune, begs them to accede to her request to cook a feast for the celebration of the one hundred year anniversary of their father’s birth.
The sisters, though suspicious of Babette’s Catholicism and the Catholic fondness for feasting, agree. The resultant feast is beyond all imaginings and though the sisters, scandalised by its sheer sumptuousness, agree to act content out of charity for Babette, they, and the rest of the town’s austere inhabitants, experience profound healing and blessedness through the meal.
The thanksgiving feast becomes Eucharistic, breaking down heretofore unbreakable boundaries that had formed over many years within the community. A profound joy resonates throughout and after the feast. The sheer beauty and splendour of the meal transformed those who had partaken.