Of Sacredness, Intimacy, and Lentil Soup

A Reflection by Sarah

I’ll never forget the first time it happened. It was a chilly day in late autumn, and I had just returned home with a mountain of papers to grade after a long commute on a crowded subway train. Anxiety and eagerness welled up inside me as I unlocked the door to my apartment, walked in, and plopped my teacher bag into its usual spot on top of my desk. Offering my cats a few gentle strokes was my attempt at preparing for that which I dreaded. I knew it was inevitable. It was going to happen eventually anyway, and that set me into a panic. Our friendship had only begun a few months prior; was I ready to let my guard down, to become so exposed? How could I know when, if ever, would be the right time to open this door of intimacy? By the time my phone rang, I had procrastinated as long as I was able. “Hello, Lindsey,” were the only two words I remember saying specifically. And before I could put all the pieces together, it was happening. It was one of the most intense, fear-provoking moments I had ever experienced. But it was also sacred. There was pain, consolation, prayer traveling from the Midwest to the East Coast and back…and a batch of lentil soup. It was the first time Lindsey and I shared dinner together.

For most of you, eating with a special person in your life probably doesn’t sound like a very big deal unless you’re profoundly challenged in the culinary department. But for me, the evening of lentil soup shared across four states was deeply meaningful and challenging to my previous assumptions about food and intimacy. I developed bulimia at age 12 and began my recovery journey more than a decade later. With lots of hard work, this condition has stabilized over the past few years. However, I still struggle from time to time, and though I thrive on frequent socialization, I often find situations requiring shared meals to be exceptionally draining. But experiencing the intimacy of sharing food with the most important people in my life, especially Lindsey, has begun to change this reality for me.

In the time we have known each other, and even more since taking up residence in the same apartment, Lindsey and I have attempted to cultivate a meaningful shared life in a number of ways. Some of the approaches we try tend to stick around longer than others. One that has managed to find a permanent place in our daily life is a commitment to eating dinner together every night. Unless some unusual circumstance (i.e. business trip with an odd schedule) has kept one or both of us from being available, we have shared every dinner since the evening of lentil soup. We have eaten together over Skype and on the phone during different seasons of our relationship, but now this sacred hour almost always takes place in our dining room, where we can relish in a few moments of quiet after even the most hectic of days.

On a typical evening, I arrive home late, exhausted from a long day of teaching, writing, and working with tutoring clients. As I am on my way, Lindsey prepares our usual simple meal of swai fillets, green vegetables, and fresh fruit and tries to time it so that everything will be ready when I get home. Cleanup will be my responsibility. (Anyone who has ever visited a monastery with me knows I make a much more useful contribution to the community’s daily work when I’m assigned to the dishes instead of the cooking.) As I walk through the door and put away my work things, aromas of curry, or oranges, or ginger greet me. We sit at our dining room table–a table that a Catholic priest once used to say Mass. Portraits of family members and icons of Christ, His Holy Mother, and the saints face toward us, joining in the nightly ritual as Lindsey says the blessing over our meal. Our two curious tabby cats that have been with me since my first year of graduate school join us as well, climbing into an empty chair, peeking over the table’s edge, and sometimes sneaking up onto the tabletop. We eat from our set of green, ceramic plates–the first item we bought together after signing the lease on our apartment.

A simple “How was your day?” begins a conversation that can unfold in infinite directions. We discuss how my lecture went that morning, new recipes we want to try, the problem of evil, the water bill, and the Christmas card we received from my pistol-packing, Appalachian grandmother. We reflect on moments during the day when God’s presence was unmistakable, and times when we’ve felt abandoned to wander in desert places. Sometimes we just sit in silence as Lindsey holds my hand. Other times, members of our chosen and proximate families join us at the table for an evening, and after we’ve eaten, we’ll indulge in a jigsaw puzzle or a round of our friend Matt’s homemade Harry Potter board game.

Dinner time in our household is a constant reminder of so many important truths I am prone to forget or downplay. The meals I share with Lindsey challenge me to recall that as humans, we are dependent upon God and each other; that God calls us into meaningful relationships that help us to nurture and sustain our vocations. I find myself reflecting on Jesus’ radical hospitality and the invitation God extends each of us at every Eucharist. I am challenged to consider how sharing meals with our loved ones compels us to extend grace and welcome to strangers. I am convicted by Jesus’ words in Luke 14:3, “But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.” Our nightly dinner routine, which began with Lindsey extending grace and hospitality to me in my moment of weakness, leads me to ponder how we, individually and together, can be a blessing to others who have endured illness, suffering, and rejection. I pray that our home might become a refuge and our dining room a place of intimate welcome for those who need it most–one bowl of lentil soup at a time.

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7 thoughts on “Of Sacredness, Intimacy, and Lentil Soup

  1. Again thank you for your vulnerability and openness. I have a family member who has struggled with bulemia for many years. I myself have more of the opposite problem, eating too much food in order to comfort or reward myself. I’ve been working on it though, by the grace of God. Thank you also for sharing about your evening meals. Imagine if all Christians practiced the radical hospitality that Christ calls us to!

    • Hi Kay. There are a few things I think are worth pointing out here. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just list them:

      1) Eating disorders do not necessarily develop because of a lack of body acceptance or poor body image. For many people, that’s a factor. But for some how one feels about one’s body isn’t a factor at all. My eating disorder began to develop as the result of a set of traumatic experiences I had as a preteen and teenager. I might share more about my recovery in future posts.

      2) I actually like my body, and don’t feel that I have a reason to dislike it. Again, i might share more at another time.

      3) My reason for choosing celibacy has nothing to do with a lack of appreciation for or connection to my body. I believe it is very important to approach celibacy with a desire to integrate one’s sexuality rather than cut it off. I imagine that people who wish to excise their sexualities might develop some problems with body acceptance. I also know some women with eating disorders who feel cut off from their sexualities, and this is part of how their eating disorders manifest. However, this is not my experience.

      I hope this has succeeded in clarifying things for you.

      Sarah

  2. This is a great story. For me, conversation while eating a shared meal has always been a vital way to develop emotional intimacy. Yet, all vowed religious communities in the Catholic and Orthodox tradition have a rule that talking is forbidden at meals. Instead, members eat in silence while one person reads aloud from scripture or other spiritual texts. (I don’t know about Anglican or other communities.)

    When you have each visited a number of celibate communities, did you encounter
    any that allowed conversation at meals?

    What about other times of day? Some orders require silence most or all the time.

    • Great question! There are some lay celibate communities that not only allow talking during meals, but encourage the idea that meals are to be a time of fellowship. When I’ve visited the Madonna House community in Combermere, Ontario, this has been the case. Madonna House is a community of lay celibate Catholics who honor traditions of both the Eastern and Western rites. It’s almost entirely lay, though there are priests as well. It’s an interesting community to visit. I’ve found that when visiting lay celibate communities, there’s often more space for verbal communication throughout the day too. But yes, when I have visited Catholic and Orthodox monasteries, I’ve almost always found that meals are silent and much of the day is spent in silence as well. -Sarah

    • I’ve visited differing communities than Sarah has. I’ve noted that some of them do talk during meals, especially if the meal is served after Eucharistic services. Several times when I’ve eaten at a monastery, they will ring a bell to indicate that it’s time to listen to a spiritual reading. Customarily, the monastics of these communities that allow conversation during meals eat only lunch with pilgrims and eat dinner within the community. -Lindsey

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