Note: The Sunday before Thanksgiving this year, I went to the All Souls Unitarian Universalist church in Brattleboro, Vermont. They were kicking off the “Guest at Your Table” campaign, so the service was about hunger and providing food. It included the fable about the difference between heaven and hell, which reminded me of the first time I heard that story. It all combined to make me think about what it means to feed one another with love. I decided to blog a short series about it, approaching this idea from different angles over a few weeks.
The first time I heard the story about the difference between heaven and hell was during the Love Feast at the 1992 Young Religious Unitarian Universalist conference called Con-Con (short for Continental Conference). It was held that summer in Poland, Maine, and my brother and I were able to attend for free since we agreed to babysit the kids of a couple we knew who were working at the conference. It lasted a week, and the Love Feast was my favorite event. At the time, I weighed around 200 pounds and had been heavy for a number of years. Below is what I wrote about it for my memoir.
The conference was on a lake (hard to avoid in Maine), and the Love Feast was held at dusk on the second day. I didn’t know many people, both from shyness about interacting with them and because some of my time was taken up at the infirmary and watching the kids. So I stood on the periphery at first and just observed: the candles winking like fireflies on the picnic tables; the crowds of people milling around in tie-dye and flannel and henna tattoos and long hair and dreadlocks; the trees turning slightly amorphous against the darkening sky; the soft ripple of the water under the chatter; the cool breeze; the first stars coming out; the bowls of finger food on the tables.
Then everyone quieted to hear our leader, who liked to go by the name Yoda. “The Love Feast is inspired by a story of a group of people who wanted to know what heaven and hell were like, so they went to visit them. In hell, they found everyone seated at a huge table filled with food, but everyone looked hungry. The group realized it was because the table only had very long forks, and people couldn’t feed themselves, so they were forced to sit in front of the food without eating.
“Then the group went to heaven. To their surprise, it was almost the same as hell, with the same long table piled with food, and the same long forks. But here, everyone was happy and laughing, because they were feeding each other. So tonight, for the Love Feast, you can only eat what other people feed you. And I ask that you feed one another in silence.”
Almost everyone started immediately, grabbing grapes, pretzels, pieces of candy, apple slices, popcorn, and whatever else they could find on the tables before feeding each other, some solemnly, some laughing. But by some unspoken rule, they all hugged after the food.
My heart hammered. Did I dare take part in this? Would anyone actually feed me? Would they recoil if I fed them and offered a hug? Could I even think about this food offering as something done only out of love, not judgment? Did I deserve to be included?
Then one of the girls in my Shamanic workshop came over with a smile and proffered grape. I felt slightly silly, like a baby, as I opened my mouth and she popped the grape in. It was sweet and faintly tart as I chewed. She gave me a quick hug then walked off. I looked after her a moment, heart suddenly expanding like the Grinch’s. With a smile, I grabbed some peanut M&M’s and made my way into the crowd.
I was looking specifically for Yoda, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Eddie Vedder (the lead singer of Pearl Jam), only shorter, and whom I therefore instantly adored. But I also found others who had been kind to me, and they didn’t turn away when I offered to feed them. Neither did Yoda, and he even returned my shy hug. What most astonished me was when the leader of my Shamanic workshop, a young man with coffee-colored skin, black hair, and smiling brown eyes, not only fed me but enveloped me in a warm, nurturing embrace. It felt like he actually cared about me in some way, that the hug wasn’t because of the Love Feast but rather the event was an excuse for the hug.
Overwhelmed, I wandered down to the shore, arms wrapped as far around me as they would go. I stared at the gentle water, sparkling with reflected moon- and starlight, trying to cry as quietly as possible. I could not remember feeling so accepted and welcomed. I looked down at the few remaining M&M’s in my hand and realized that for the first time in a long while I wasn’t tempted to eat them. Instead, I quieted my breathe, wiped my tears, and went back to the feast.
That memory has remained vivid for me for almost two decades. It was the first time I had ever considered what it would be like to be fed only with love. Even now, it brings tears to my eyes, and I can definitely say that it was a heavenly experience. This holiday season, may you and your loved ones share food with such love and grace and holiness.