Family fast and fast food

Clare Watkins

Should Christian families follow society’s trend in solitary snacking, or make a point of eating together at table? Dr Clare Watkins, Vice Principal of the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, Cambridge, reflects on the theological implications of the way we eat, or abstain from eating, in the world of fast food. ‘For, whilst all animals feed, and hunger, and eat and drink, we alone are able to reflect on this basic activity in the light of God’s providence ...’

An Anglican priest once recounted to me, with considerable mirth, how a Roman Catholic nun had once enthusiastically tried to engage him in reflecting on the connection between his family table and the eucharistic table of the altar. As a father of three, and as a priest, was this not a constant and beautiful resonance in his life? Such a connection – given the memory of the breakfast table that morning, the noise and fighting, and mess – seemed to him only possibly to exist in the imaginations of those who had never really experienced these domestic horrors. As a parent myself, I can see what he means. It is often the romantic notion of those who don’t share meals with adolescents and small children that, in some way, there is a natural eucharistic resonance at work around the family table!

Yet, for all that, it has been borne in on me, again and again, that there are important questions to be pondered over in relation to the patterning of our eating and drinking – questions which lie at the heart of any attempt to think through what it might mean to live in a household reflecting the gospel. For the way of discipleship described in the Gospel stories is one in which table fellowship and food are revealed as places of graced encounter. At the heart of the paschal mystery itself is a supper – a supper which is a place of Christ’s eternal presence as Eucharist, and a place of Christian vocation as service (John 13:1-15). Eating and drinking with others is, however ordinary and ‘worldly’, properly a subject for deep reflection when struggling to live Christian vocation in the world. It is also so practical and ordinary a thing that we can frequently fail to reflect upon it as a part of our living of prayer and discipleship. We can forget that we are a sacramental, indeed eucharistic, people, and that this reality in Christ calls us into graced ways of living what is ordinary.

Pastoral observations
It is a commonplace observation that ‘family meals’ are less and less the norm in households in our own time and place. First Communion catechists will know that the ‘family meal’ is no longer a ready-to-hand experience to which we can appeal – to parents or children – in developing understanding of Eucharist as such a meal. Small guests to my own family are frequently put into varying levels of shock and noticeable discomfort, on being called to sit at the tea-table. The subsequent prayer before eating underscores the peculiarity of the household they are visiting! Whispered questions to my children can be overheard: ‘Do you always sit at the table?’ ‘Does she make you say a prayer before every meal?’

To eat together, attentive to (and frequently irritated by) the needs, eating habits, moods and conversation (or the lack) of the rest of the household, is, increasingly, a counter-cultural act. It is, also, a discipline, with all the helpful and difficult things that word implies. The question for Christian households of whatever size or type is of that difficult kind with which all reflective lay people are familiar: do we collude with prevailing cultural practices? Or witness against them? Do we embrace ‘the normal’ and find new ways of speaking of gospel and Eucharist? Or do we live distinctively, and run the risk for ourselves and (more especially) for our children of being frankly peculiar, and so marginal? I do not think we can give generalised answers to such polarised questions. What we can do is reflect prayerfully and evangelically on how we are about food and feeding. I suspect that, growing from such reflection, new patterns of practical living will emerge for many of us.

This reflection is not easy. It is generally, if wearily, recognised that we are now more likely to snack on public transport, gulp down solitary hurried breakfasts, sit in front of (different) TVs with plates on our laps, rather than sit around a table together. We know this as the way of our world, and either adopt similar patterns, or rail against them, with varying degrees of conviction. Parish patterns of life and ministry often only add to this culture of ‘food as fuel’. How often have we all gulped a sandwich down, thrown something together for spouses and children, so as to be on time for that (oh-so-important) parish meeting? A meeting which, of course, will not generally offer us more than a cup of characteristically unsatisfactory tea or coffee. It is not coincidence that my weight was at a record low when working in a parish, and food bills doubled as we attempted to live off ready-meals and convenience foods.

We can make these cultural observations fairly easily. My guess is, however, that such social questions of etiquette and behaviour are seldom explored by most of us from a perspective of our faith and prayer life. Even less would we consider changing our eating habits as an act of Christian witness, or as a way of building up our households into ecclesiae domesticae – little churches in ordinary living – places of graced meeting and healing service. It is rare, I think, to reflect on how we order home and parish life to food, in terms of how far we are seeking to make these such ‘eucharistic places’. But this is what I want to suggest we might be being called to do.

Eucharistic households
So what happens when we bring theological and especially sacramental reflection to the way we deal with food, eating and drinking in our lives? It seems to me that there are certain connections between eucharistic themes and the traditions that have, in the past, surrounded food, that are worth pointing out and dwelling on here. In each case there is a coming and going from the altar to the domestic table, in which, perhaps, both can be seen somewhat differently. It is in this coming and going, I would suggest, that we can begin to find ways of allowing all our very different and varied households and communities to grow their own authentic ways of being ‘places of eucharist’.

A discipline of gathering
It is interesting to note how much we use, pastorally and liturgically, the language of ‘gathering’. We have ‘gathering songs’ before Mass, to mark our coming together as, in itself, a significant, eucharistic act; many are beginning to refer to ‘gathering rites’ in our liturgy; we speak in our thinking about Church of being a ‘gathered people’; we sing songs about ‘gathering in’, ‘gathered to one’, ‘into one we all are gathered’…

Perhaps this preoccupation with the language of gathering is precisely a response to a felt lack in the rest of our lives. For, on the whole, we fail to gather. In particular, we fail, as a society, to gather about food. Eating and drinking is, for many, no longer a focus for spending sizeable chunks of time getting together with family, fellow householders and friends. Food is necessary, and we add it to our list of chores, getting it in when we can before rushing to this or that meeting, doing this or that important job, sorting out and fixing things. We are, after all, busy people, with diverse timetables and packed schedules; trying to fit in meals together, properly prepared and arranged and at agreed times, interrupts this busyness.

But isn’t it precisely in this interruption of our own agendas and plans that the gracedness of gathering to share food is encountered? An understanding with others that we should come together to eat – and indeed to prepare for and clear away from that eating – makes a demand on us to look beyond our own ‘stuff’. It is, of course, a nuisance; it is a discipline, and so requires effort, and a level, I suppose, of sacrifice. But adherence to such a shared patterning of the rhythm of the day can become a powerful and completely ordinary witness to the truth that I am not simply an individual, fuelled by food, so as to get the next thing in production, the next job on the list done. Rather, I am a person held in daily, bonded relation with others, in a way which not only has a claim on my diary, but fundamentally shapes my day. This discipline of the household requires of me that I conform my needs and pleasures, in some small way, to those of others around me.

Saying grace, and gracing saying
If the discipline of gathering together around the table, at common times, refers us beyond our own concerns to our bonds with others, then the simple ‘grace before meals’ can lead us further. For meals as an occasion for prayer together not only mark our links with one another as a household, but witness to the deeper reality that we are bonded together beyond our human relationships, in Christ. Here, too, we recognise a deeper and wider bond of mutual patterning, which embraces those outside our own household – and those for whom there is no household, and no food. In referring our gathering to Christ, we are mindful that ‘all things are united in him’ (Eph 1:10).

To ‘say grace’ before meals is a common enough Catholic reference, although it is a practice which appears less and less held in common, and one that is often greeted with embarrassment. My own embarrassment on my children’s refusal to sing our usual grace in the presence of guests to our family table is only matched by their insistence on singing it, loudly, when we are eating out at a restaurant! The risk is that the very simplicity, and ordinariness, and brevity of this pre-eating prayer, coupled with a certain awkwardness, prevents us seeing how profound a potential it has. For here, in asking for blessing, and in giving thanks (eucharisteo), we are speaking grace before one another, and opening ourselves to the celebration of the many graces the Lord longs to bestow upon us. This ‘eucharistising’ transcends the boundaries of our domestic setting, and sets us, whether alone or surrounded at our individual tables, at the common table of God’s bountiful providence.

Perhaps, too, this ‘speaking grace’, this explicit naming of God’s grace as a necessary preface to sharing food, can deepen our awareness of the gracedness of eating itself, and of the speaking that so often accompanies it. Our sensitivity to the food before us as God’s gift, which evokes thankfulness and joy in our hearts, is a sensitivity to be carried through into the conversations (and fights and niggles!) of the family meal, and into the silence of the solitary meal. In both God will want to speak his grace to us.

‘Fruit of the earth, work of human hands’
Giving thanks for our food reminds us of something not immediately self-evident: that the preparation and consuming of food involves us, for all its ordinariness, in a place of considerable theological mystery. For here we are brought up against the ‘givenness’ of creation – a world whose presence to us we cannot begin to explain and upon which we are entirely dependent. I happily go about the supermarket selecting varieties of potato, examining my conscience (and my bank balance) in relation to organic foods, treating myself to shellfish, or melon, or artichoke hearts, or whatever takes my fancy; and in all this I experience myself as ‘consumer’, and the food as ‘products’. All this is more or less dependable, and rather pleasing. What I generally fail to notice is that this is entirely gift; I am not mindful of the way in which this accumulation of foodstuffs witnesses at a profound level to the mystery of God’s creation ex nihilo, and my intimate involvement in it as a creature myself.

The whole activity of eating, nourishing ourselves and feeding others is curious. It brings together our most basic, creaturely, animal needs, with our distinctively human characteristics of care, creativity, conversation and nurture. For, whilst all animals feed, and hunger, and eat and drink, we alone are able to reflect on this basic activity in the light of God’s providence – his message to us that he loves what he has created, and has a special place for us in this loving.

Mysterious exchange
In a world where we and our children know that milk comes in plastic containers, and meat is bought from Tesco’s pre-packed, it is all too easy to miss the extraordinary nature of what is going on with us and food. The mysterious exchange of energies and growth involved, as we receive from the earth, and prepare with our hands, so as to be able to be strong, and grow, and be in good health – much of this is lost in the complexities of contemporary food production and marketing. Yet, potentially, isn’t the business of living off food (which is our only option!) a place of graced awareness of our intimate and necessary immediacy to God’s creation? Isn’t it here that a common participation with and in humanity in the world is most eloquently expressed?

So much of our human lives is marked by the attempts, at various conscious and unconscious levels, to pretend we are not creatures, that we are in charge. In such a culture there can be something about the simple tasks of washing and peeling and cooking a carrot, picking of herbs and adding them to the pot, growing a spindly tomato plant and eating its fruit, which all at once makes it transparent that we are ordered in our living to a Creator. If we eat at all, and if there is work for our hands to do, it is because of his providing it for us.

Going without
Within the Catholic tradition there has always been a recognition of the patterning of food consumption as something intimately related to theological celebration, and the liturgical cycle: so, for example, the ‘giving up’ of Lent, the ‘feasting’ of feast days, the Cafod Fast Days in solidarity with and financial support of the majority of human beings whose lives are shaped not by mealtimes, but by chronic hunger. The traditional ‘fasting and abstinence’ of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the simplifying of food as a regular Friday witness and discipline are, in theory at least, ways of manifesting this deep relation of eating and faith.

In a culture such as our own, marked, publicly at least, by plenty, and variety and availability, the idea of choosing to go without – of fasting, or abstaining – is deeply counter-cultural. Indeed, it is, in my experience, viewed with a level of suspicion, as much by fellow Catholics as anyone else. If food is God’s good gift to us, and if we need it to be healthy, and happy, and strong, what is the point of depriving ourselves of it, in all its richness and delight? How can feeling hungry, and wobbly, and – let’s be honest – bad-tempered, be any kind of spiritual discipline for the enlightened contemporary Western Christian?

We often see the significant aspects of our own culture – whether domestic, ecclesial, or societal – reflected most vividly in the attitudes and behaviour of our children. In developing a culture of food in the context of its general abundance and variety, divorced, very often, from any sense of the involvement of ‘the work of human hands’, we have set our children in a curious place. This is a place of eating what you want, when you want it; an extraordinary place in human history, of the generally accepted sense that we should be able to satisfy our needs, and tastes, and desires, rapidly, more or less immediately, and with a minimum of effort. Our attitudes to food are a part of this consumer-product way of looking at the world.

Going without – in particular, choosing to go without as an act of Christian faith – interrupts such a mentality prophetically. This ‘going without’ is not about losing weight, or health issues; it is not about asceticism in some individualistic, pious way. This fasting or abstaining is about holding in question a culture of ready and immediate satisfactions, and letting that question be held and felt in the very matter of our bodies. The hunger of our bodies, their very discomfort, can return us to the deeper and more ‘normal’ human reality of transparent dependency on God, and the nature of human living as patterned by a certain waiting on God and his Providence, an enduring which takes us beyond the protection of our usual comforts into a much bigger, and possibly truer, place, where, in fact, we know that most human beings in our world are hungry. We leave the gratifications of our precarious Western affluence, and ‘go without’ into God’s world.

Eucharistic living in parishes and households
The challenge for us in thinking about food in the light of Christian faith is, in part, that it seems such an odd thing to do: to hold up in a questioning way something so everyday, so ‘ordinary’, might seem to theologise too far! But in drawing out these themes of food-practice and faith we can begin to see something of how formative is the way we order our households in relation to eating. It is in this straightforward, domestic thing that patterns of belonging – to each other and to God – are invisibly and powerfully established; it is here, too, that our awareness of the gracedness of creation, and the generosity of the Creator can become living forces that speak the truth to us, day by day, about our own creaturely dependence and responsibility. These are thoughts and prayers that take us to the heart of ‘eucharist in ordinary’, and return us to the eucharistic celebration which is the Mass with fresh vision and attentiveness.

Much of what I have reflected on here, concerning food and eating habits as a locus of Christian living in the household, might usefully be introduced into parish reflections. How far do our parish structures enable or disable the bonding and celebratory potential of sharing food? How far are we encouraged to celebrate with thankful (eucharistic) hearts the ‘fruits of the earth, work of human hands’? It is so easy for us as Catholics to keep our eucharistic thinking safely confined in liturgy; and yet, if the reflections of this article are right, our own time and place needs a clear proclamation and witness to the ordinary gracedness of eating and being nourished. I am both cheered and troubled by the memory of a ‘complaint’ in the parish where I was then working: ‘the trouble with this parish is we do too much eating and drinking’. How hard it can be when ‘Eucharist’ makes demands on our hospitality and affections outside of the ‘safe’ rituals of the Sunday Mass! How hard, and how very graced!

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