I ask my students to share a story about a time when they felt fully nourished. I don’t give them any parameters, just an open ended question, I stand back and wait. Often during my ever so creative warm ups, I’m faced with abject silence, averted eyes, and nervous twitter, but that would not be the case today. One of my student’s hands shot up like a missile, waving frantically for my attention, there was nothing I could do but submit to her demands. She shared with the class, “At my house we all eat dinner in our rooms or in front of the television, we have different schedules, my mom works, and so we’re sort of on our own, but when we do come together for a meal, I feel so satisfied, not just because of the food, something happens at the table, and I can’t explain it.”
Little did she know how beautifully she set the foundation for my lesson on Eucharist. I’m so delighted with her observation that I decide to deviate from the lesson plan (that won’t surprise anyone who knows me) and instead move gently toward the benefits of coming together for a meal in a fragmented world. Why is it so satisfying to share a meal with our families? What happens around the dinner table? Are we nourishing something other than our bodies? It is one of those magical moments when everyone has something to say, to share, and to reveal about the intimacy of what we began to refer to as table magic.
I wish I had a loaf of bread to share as we discuss the concept of nourishment but I had some Starburst candy and that seems to work just fine. We explore the intimacy of sharing our stories, the satisfaction of nourishing our bodies along with our relationships. We recognize the commonality of our need to eat but we conclude our hunger for relationship might be more important than our hunger for food. The stories we pass around are as sweet and chewy as the Starburst candy. One of the students starts a paper chain with the bright wrappers and before I recognize the symbolism everyone is folding papers, talking, and connecting the links in a paper chain.
We decide we are both spiritual and physical beings and the table is a place where these spheres intersect. Meals are so tightly woven into our traditions that it is impossible to unravel the food from the celebration. The students are easily able to move from the importance of family meals to the importance of the Eucharistic meal the church provides to strengthen and empower its followers.
At times we feel battered by relentless waves of suffering in this life, undertows that drag us out to sea until we acquiesce, and find our way back to the soft wet shore. Much like the disciples felt after the death of Jesus, their mentor, teacher, prophet, and king. Three days after his death on the cross, Jesus appears to the despondent disciples fishing off the shores of Galilee, he makes them breakfast, and asks Peter the same question three times, “Do you love me?” When Peter confirms his love for Jesus he tells him, “to feed his sheep.” Clearly love of God is entwined with the physical and spiritual feeding of others.
It made me think of my mom and how difficult it must have been for her to confront the empty place at the table after the death of my dad. No one considers the isolation one must feel after the death of a spouse especially during meals? The separation is painful enough but the reminder of the empty table must be overwhelming. Meals carry with them such potent memories. As my children move out one by one I mourn their presence at our table. Now when we all come together for a meal I am overwhelmed with gratitude.
My students continue to chain together their thoughts when someone remembers a book Notre Dame read a few summers back, called Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. The book’s title comes from a quote by Haji Ali, who said to Mortenson, “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family…” Something magical happens when people share a meal, a cup of tea, and especially Eucharist, it alters the relationship with those who participate, linking them together spiritually, physically, and emotionally. It’s a tangible reminder in a fragmented world that it’s time to come back to the table.
Link your ideas about meals in the comments! I’ll grab a snack so we can bond.