It makes me aware of how much good I waste. If I truly acted on my belief in the goodness of words, for example, I would probably talk a lot less. I have always been awed by the value and power of words, and yet I so often throw them around—saying things I haven’t considered and callously don’t care to defend. I express opinions I’m not even sure if I hold, dilute the things I do mean by gushing words just to pass the time. And none of that even touches on the words I speak (or don’t speak!) to wound or mislead or any number or other horrible things that also make language important—a good which can be misused and turned to damage. Christ himself is the Word of God, yet James calls the tongue a world of malice because it speaks words. He also calls the tongue a fire, and I like that better. Fire is the perfect image for important things like language, food, and relationships. A fire can do everything from purify metal to cook food, warm a home to fuel a steam engine. But fire can only do those things when it is in its proper form; when it is disciplined by people who know how to harness its power without being burned up. We know this is true, yet we treat things like food and sex like so many matches to play with. ALL THE TIME.
Flannery O’Connor’s book The Violent Bear It Away offers the best representation of this that I can think of. The book centers around two images of purification: fire and water. Characters say things like “even the mercy of the Lord burns” and “be purified in God’s fire or perish in your own.” (Those are paraphrases as my copy is packed in some box somewhere). In her letters O’Connor said that in The Violent Bear It Away, “water is a symbol of the kind of purification God gives irrespective of our efforts or worthiness, and fire is the kind of purification we bring on ourselves in Purgatory. It is our evil which is naturally burnt away when it comes anywhere near God.” Some purification is a cool and cleansing grace, some the searing pain of loss. I think it’s fair to call it loss. Good things aren’t the only things that we can lose. I apologize for my excessive Bibleyness today, but one of my favorite images maybe ever is that of building with materials which can withstand the test of fire.
For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building…If anyone builds on this foundation [Christ] with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire. Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
1 Corinthians 3:9-16
I think that at some point in every person’s life each of us will (or should) very tangibly, almost physically, discover what this means. Through an encounter with God, who we know as burning light, through the kind of suffering we can’t predict or understand, and through immensely damaging encounters with the unbound fires we set ourselves. It’s strange that such diverse kinds of suffering could be so related, but I do not think contradictory. The most important thing I’ve learned from the times my life has felt burned to the ground is that there is no pain or loss which can truly take good away from us. It doesn’t feel like that; it burns like hell (or Purgatory, I guess), but (if you let it) suffering can be a fire that purifies and even reveals what is good—because good survives. Even when you lose a lot—a relationship, a home, even a life—the good of what was can be kept. Running away from purification will only make it more painful and last longer. The words are easy, the reality is the hardest thing anyone can do.
It’s something that is nearly impossible to do if you haven’t prepared for it. And I guess that’s the point of all this: you prepare for the fire which inevitably comes by building with things that last. Natural goods cannot be treated casually. That’s shoddy work—like trying to make pottery out of papier-mâché. It might be sad and disappointing for your mug to leave the kiln in ashes, but the kiln can’t be blamed for that. What kind of idiot doesn’t work with good clay? (This kind of idiot.) This is the only way I can understand the disturbing teaching that to those who have more will be given, and to those who don’t will have even that taken away. Everyone’s work will pass through fire; those who build well will be rewarded gratuitously beyond even what survives and those who build poorly will suffer the full loss of what has been destroyed.
Obviously these thoughts range far from the supposed point of this blog. But, they actually do relate to food. It’s easy think about things like sex and money as weighty subjects, deserving of our care as we build our lives with them, but food is like that too. Everything is like that. Everything matters. Feasting is only good when it’s really a feast. In the words of the ever wise Benjamin Gibbard (joke!): it’s not a party if it happens every night. When there is reason for celebration, or someone is offering you genuine hospitality, I think that there is something actually wrong with abstaining because you’re on a diet or it’s not the organic stuff you usually buy or something like that. That’s easy for me to recognize. However, there is also something wrong with eating for false comfort or distraction or boredom. The sweet potato chips I may or may not shovel down before I even get home from the grocery store matter. Our culture finds humor in the lonely woman eating ice cream out of the gallon, but it’s the exact same humor we find in the guy looking to get laid after a breakup. Neither of those things are actually funny. The fact that we think one is no big deal because it involves food makes it all the more dangerous.
So, food is important and we should eat like we believe that. This can involve all sorts of social justice issues (who grows our food? how is it grown? what does it do to land and people that produce it? what does it do to us when we eat it?), but I think that it starts and ends with gratitude. Chesterton called gratitude “happiness doubled by wonder.” It’s easy to find a cheap happiness in food. But, the fact that plants grow because of remarkable, seemingly unrelated, things like sunlight and water and that cows make milk somehow out of those plants they eat and that when you churn that milk it transforms into something as gorgeous as butter…is pretty astonishing. Like anything good, I think that when you pay enough attention to food you will be grateful for it, for the people who produce it, and you won’t want to waste it or support methods or companies that degrade it. This is partly why Christians (and others) pray before meals.
That being said, I’ll quote Chesterton again:
The only simplicity that matters is the simplicity of the heart. If that be gone, it can be brought back by no turnips or cellular clothing; but only by tears and terror and the fires that are not quenched.
(Again with the refining fires.) Chesterton’s point is that eating simple or “moral” food will not make you moral. Gluttony doesn’t only consist of eating too much. Happiness, wonder, and simplicity can sometimes look like accepting that high-fructose-corn-syrup-riddled-cringe-fest dessert that your ignorant, low-class, crappy-food-eating friend/relative/acquaintance hospitably offers you.
Food should amaze us, but not so much as love amazes us. So let’s all stop wasting good things now. It will give us more with which to love the people who will all someday, somehow leave us.