Ours is not a society that often considers what we eat to be sacred. Those who take communion may think of the wafer that way, although since I don’t participate in that ritual, I don’t know for sure. But for most of us, most of the time it’s easy not to think of food as sacred because we are so accustomed to having enough, in fact an overabundance. While familiarity may not exactly breed contempt in this case, it does remove us from the miracle that is our food.
But not everyone is in this position. As Kate Braestrup writes in Beginner’s Grace: “For millennia, and for too many of our brothers and sisters today, hunger is the first pain and the final agony of human life. The hungry, therefore, have no problem whatever grasping the sacredness of food.” (p. 27)
Thinking about this, I can finally begin to understand the concept, if not the practice, of religious rituals such as Lent. Although I was Catholic until I was 8, I don’t recall my food-focused family ever observing it. And in my current Unitarian Universalist denomination, where potlucks rank only second to committee meetings as favorite activities, such traditions feel like relics of a religious past many would prefer to forget.
But just because a ritual is old does not mean it is out-dated. In fact, for those of us with more than we need, these days it may be more relevant than at any other time to know the pangs of hunger, the disappointment of an unsatisfied craving. It reminds us not to take it for granted, a lesson we would all do well to remember in light of the fact that our world of abundance seems to be coming to an end.
What I take from these types of traditions is not the concept of deprivation. Rather, their value lies in forcing people to focus on what they are eating, to pay attention, and to recognize it for the wonder it is. What, after all, could be more miraculous than a tiny seed, nourished only by sun and rain and a little care, sprouting to a plant that can feed a hungry child? Or another type of seed emerging as a living creature that could grow to feed a family? Or our bodies in turn providing nourishment to those very plants from which we once ate?
And so while I have never been one to say grace, more and more I understand the importance of that pause of recognition, not to offer praise to a divine being but to honor the sacredness of food. For those who share that sense but may wish for a non-denominational grace, perhaps you, as I, can agree with this one (listed on p. 23 of Beginner’s Grace, author unknown and the “amen” optional):
We are thankful for the food
And for the hands that prepared it
And for our family and for our friends.