Food for Thought

Some may be wary of the new book TerraFutura (“FutureWorld”) by Italian environmental activist Carlo Petrini, which features a series of conversations with Pope Francis about “integral ecology” five years after Laudato Si. In these interviews, the pope comments very truly on something that will help our culture and our planet far more than eco-activism: the importance of food and eating.

Laudato Si is Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical promoting an “ecological spirituality” to counteract the effects of global warming and a lack of biodiversity. It’s no wonder the earth-embracing tones of Laudato Si would be revisited in the current cultural climate, as it rages like the deadly West Coast wildfires with fears of climate change. But before the problems of mass consumerism and its effects can be addressed in any meaningful way, we must first address the way in which we consume as individuals, and food is a very good place to start.

Carlo Petrini is also a food activist, having founded the Slow Food Movement which promotes local food traditions to counteract the effects of fast food chains and egregious food waste. So, when the topic of food came up in one of his three recorded conversations with Pope Francis, it found some free rein and the pontiff said,

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Today we’re seeing a certain degeneration regarding food… I’m thinking about those lunches and dinners with countless courses where you come away stuffed, often without pleasure, only quantity. That way of doing things is an expression of ego and individualism, because at the heart of it is food for the sake of food, not relationships with other people, for which food is a means. On the other hand, where there’s a capacity to keep other people at the center, then eating is the supreme act that favors conviviality and friendship, which creates the conditions for the birth and the maintenance of good relationships and which acts as a way of transmitting values.

Regardless of his strange environmentalism, Pope Francis is right. Breaking bread together is a deep sign of cultural togetherness, for it bestows both natural and supernatural nourishment. What’s more, a meal is a ritual. It’s a manifestation of living together in harmony and health—an enactment of human civility and civilization. Food provides a happy occasion for gathering and collective enjoyment, which is one of the pillars of friendship and a healthy culture. As an essentially life-giving activity, the meal is a sacrament of family and friends; it is a sign and a strengthening of the life that flows from those labors of love that bind people together. Meals also serve as a way of worship, a celebration of God’s gifts of food and fellowship.

Of the myriad heavenly and earthly themes that season the epic poem The Odyssey, one of the most central is the meal. Homer uses eating, drinking, and the customs surrounding meals as a touchstone of character that reflects inmost nature. Thus is illustrated the true selves of the swinish suitors as they devour another man’s abundance, the noble Menelaus as he waits upon young Telemachus, and the savage Polyphemus as he gorges on the dead. The wisdom of depicting the act of eating as symbolic of the interior life is rooted in the mystical side of eating, an act essential for life and an occasion for the morality that springs from manners.

The modern degeneration of the meal that Pope Francis mentions both reflects and contributes to the decline of modern life and modern culture. Today the idea and ethics of dining are deteriorating into a hurried, harried, pre-packaged affair punctuated by interruptions. The very expression “fast food” is inimical to the most essential reason for meals, which arises not out of speed but out of care, consideration, and conversation. Just as Mass and prayer are not for hastening through, neither are meals. The current tendency, however, is not only to eat in a rush, which prevents the enjoyment of a meal and demeans the dignity of food, but also to eat alone, which diminishes the sense of community. When meals are sacred, the labor and leisure of communities will be sacred—and that sanctity is the basis of culture.

The challenge of every Catholic is to partake in the life of the Mystical Body of Christ. The source and center of this life is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: this is the perfect prayer and the enactment of the Mystery of Faith—and it is designed around a meal. Gatherings of Catholic families and friends are a reflection of the Catholic Church, where, as in the parish church, an atmosphere of friendship is fostered and ordered intrinsically to the worship and service of God. Parishioners gather before the altar to partake in the Body and Blood of Christ, and the act of gathering around a table for fellowship and food is in a common category.

Together, they fulfill a need for spiritual and physical nourishment and community.

The Mass is not just a meal (as post–Vatican II, crypto-Protestant errors may have it), but the meal does reflect the deeper realities of the Eucharist. The power and potency of the meal is a sign and source of well-being in Christ. Though Christ is known to fast in the Gospels, He also makes meals central to His ministry, from the wedding feast, to the feeding of the five thousand, and to the Last Supper and His own Flesh and Blood being food and drink.

The Catholic faith is an incarnational faith, a faith of feasts after fasts, pairing its spiritual and intellectual profundities with complementary traditions of art that fill the senses with satisfaction, awe, pleasure, and joy. It is for this reason, which is all too often forgotten, that it is good to reunite the essentially connected realities of body and soul, of the meal and the Mass, and of earth and heaven.

Good food goes hand in hand with a wholesome culture, and therefore with the flourishing of the Faith. This is the environmental fight which we must fight, the one for the environment of a Christian culture, which, as John Senior put it, “is the natural environment of truth, assisted by art, ordered intrinsically—that is, from within—to the praise, reverence and service of God Our Lord.” In short, Dr. Senior writes further, Christian culture is the Mass, and the Mass is a meal. And thus, we must take the meal seriously and not let the praxes around food decline. Wendell Berry writes, “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration.”

Pope Francis speaks truly about the cultural and even religious ecology of the meal, and a re-elevation of the meal will restore much of what is ailing on earth. Ultimately, however, we have more important things to save than the planet, but we can take more effective strides to save what is worth saving as we work out our salvation through the meals that nourish the body and nurture the soul towards a human perfection. As Odysseus said,

I myself feel that there is nothing more delightful than when the festive mood reigns in a whole people’s hearts and the banqueters listen to a minstrel from their seats in the hall, while the tables before them are laden with bread and meat, and a steward carries round the wine he has drawn from the bowl and fills their cups.  This, to my way of thinking, is something very like perfection.

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