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Food, eating, and Lent Print
Guest column
Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011 -- 1:00 AM

Eating is a sacred act, for it represents the natural inclination for sustenance which powers all living bodies and therefore is the life-sustaining force of the Creator.

The Psalmist wrote: “(O Lord) You raise grass for the cattle, and vegetation for men’s use, Producing bread from the earth and wine to gladden men’s hearts, So that their faces gleam with oil, and bread fortifies the hearts of men” (Psalm 104: 14, 15).

In the same passage he continues, “They all look to you to give them food in due time. When you give it to them, they gather it; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.”

Tending the earth

In the earliest section of the Genesis narrative, God the Creator blows life into a shaped lump of earthen clay and from this act of His spirit the human family was born.

And to this family was given the task of tending the earth and all its creatures. Not as one who lords over all others but as one who preserves and prospers the animals and resources of Creation.

Humanity has been assigned a role from the very beginning of our earthly existence, but it is as the role of steward — not master. We are a co-creating force, working with and through the Almighty Creator.

Our dependence on the infinite forces of the Creator must be maintained with reverence and fidelity. When we fall out of connection to the Creator, we do so at our own peril and become hollow from our disobedience to the divine force of all Creation.

Sacred act of eating

We conclude from Scripture that the life force given by the Creator is sustained through the proper use of Creation to the benefit of all life and this is a sacred process since it sustains the life gifted by the Creator.

As Catholic Christians we also know of the sacred act of eating through the Gospel stories of Jesus Christ, his many parables, and most especially through the Lord’s Supper and the institution of the Eucharist by the Messiah immediately before his suffering, death by crucifixion, and his glorious resurrection.

The bread and the wine broken and shared with the disciples at that final supper is still broken and shared with all of us through the Eucharistic Feast.

Our consumption of the Eucharist links us directly to Jesus Christ and his earthly servant the Holy Mother Church, and to the entire body of the Catholic community — both here and in Kingdoms to come. What act of eating could be more sacred?

Slowing down during Lent

This Lenten season of penitential action and reflection beginning on Ash Wednesday, March 9, should move us closer and closer to Jesus. We need to stop and take stock of our life styles, our choices — including the food we purchase, in both how it was made and how much is enough.

Mindfulness is necessary to keep us vigilant to our fast paced and not very often well thought-out daily routines. We have often chosen the expedient over the difficult and always we seem to gravitate to the easy over the challenging.

Yet nothing about Lent should be quick or easy. We must see Lent as the great gift of slowing down and as a self-enforced tempering of our routine and mindless intentions.

When we live mindfully, we move to the sacred; when we live without intention in our acts and our entire daily lives, we move far from the sacred to the depths of the profane.

When we treat time, our families, even our daily bread as just part of an endless stream of consumables, which are there entirely for our own self-gratification and ease, then our actions are profane.

It all can happen so easily and seemingly seamlessly that we scarce recognize we have turned away from God.

Returning to our Maker

This journey of Lent is the return to our Maker; it cannot be done without mindfulness and a steadfast heart. Neither of these two necessities for our journey seems obtainable in a hurried rush or buried within the chaos and clamor of the secular marketplace.

The small and “gentle whisper” of our Creator, barely perceived by the prophet Elijah on the heights of Mt. Horeb, is harder and harder to access in today’s individualistic and entertainment-driven culture.

Our Lenten observation fits the prescription — a self-enforced exile of 40 days — eating less and more mindfully while praying more with less interruption.

Consider how we eat

To foster this Lenten prescription, let us prayerfully consider how we eat. Through the Church’s practice of fasting and abstinence we are gently coaxed into becoming more mindful of what we eat and how much we eat. But it all must be done within the context of our prayer life — so, if you do not say a grace or meal prayer before you begin to eat, start to!

And if it is already your practice to say grace in thanksgiving for “your daily bread,” try expanding the traditional table grace to include a heartfelt impromptu reflection for that particular moment and day. Reflect on and then pray for all those who labored to grow, harvest, transport, and market the food we are about to eat.

Pray that all were compensated with a just and fair wage, that the animals of the farms are respected and given adequate and proper care, that rural communities that support the farmers remain viable and nurturing places which will foster vocations to both our farms and our churches, and that our urban communities and churches understand their responsibility to purchase food that was grown locally (when possible) so as to preserve the rural farming communities which no city can survive without.

Opportunity to be hungry

And most especially, don’t let the chance slip past to thank our loving God for the Lenten opportunity to be hungry. We know from our health care providers that we Americans all consume more food than we need or that is healthy.

Let our fasting remind us of the daily trials and suffering of the poor and consider if money not spent on filling our “growling guts” can’t be offered up to support the feeding of those who are truly hungry throughout our communities.

Pray that this feeling of hunger will also remind us of the mysterious beauty of being alive, that the momentary discomfort of a rumbling stomach ties us in solidarity to all who live without adequate access to food resources.

And lastly, thank God for the hunger which awakens us to the importance of our daily bread and most especially our place in the work of God’s Creation.

Tom Nelson is coordinator of the Rural Life Office of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Madison.