The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet
by Emily Stimpson Chapman
(Emmaus Road Publishing, 2016)
In our country, it sometimes seems like one is surrounded by cuisine of different cultures, not to mention what is in the cooking pots of our neighbouring countries. Yet, I have never thought all that much about food from a spiritual perspective. Hence, this book has been helpful in “learning to see food with Catholic eyes”.
Emily Chapman’s message is that food is a “sign of the Lord’s goodness, abundance, creativity, and love”. Therefore, when we do not understand food in this way, we are headed for bodily and spiritual damage.
Food in Sacred Scripture
Food appears all over the Bible, right from the Garden of Eden to the meal of all meals, the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9). It is an important part of the covenants God made with man and features in a number of prophecies and psalms. God supplied generously, such as in the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 33:3) and the “bread of angels” (Ps 78:25), and specified the food instructions that would set His people apart. It is the theme of some parables and miracles and most importantly, Jesus Himself became “the living bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:51).
Food as Sign and Sacrament
Food is a sign that indicates what gives it its full meaning – it signifies “important truths about man, life, community, and ultimately, God himself”.
At the highest level, the Eucharist is the sign of Food as the source of “comfort, love, healing, joy” and as the force that binds people together.
Fasting – Hungering for Christ
Nowadays, people sometimes talk about substituting our fasts from food with fasting from something else. In fact, fasting from “actual food” is required. Our bodies and souls are “inextricably linked” and fasting strengthens our souls. Chapman further explains that the saints who famously fasted prodigiously did so not to show their holiness but to “draw nearer to the hungry, suffering Christ”, and to “become more like him”. Learning from their examples, we should understand that fasting is not a “punishment” although it is certainly a way to make reparation for our sins; it is a way to come close to God.
Feasting – Rejoicing with Christ
At the end of a period of fasting comes the feast, and feasts were of great importance to the Israelites. They had feasts for occasions such as marriages or success in battles, and to welcome visitors, even strangers. There were the spiritual Feast of Passover, Feast of Weeks and Feast of Tabernacles, which all commemorated what God had done for His People. In New Testament times, Jesus participated in these religious feasts as well as many social ones.
With all this eating, one might worry if we are veering into gluttonous behaviour. Chapman clarifies that gluttony is a “vicious form of self love” whereas rejoicing in God’s goodness is celebrating what He provides. In both our mundane daily meals and on special occasions, we have the choice between greed and virtue, and we can choose to strengthen and exercise our “spiritual muscles”, in faith, hope and charity.
A very important reminder for me is that being fixated on what to eat or not to eat can become as sinful as overeating, when this becomes an idol we obsess about. While it is essential to take care of ourselves, “the body is not a god to worship” and what will matter when we come before God in the end is “how much we loved”, not how much or what we ate or not.
It is a testimony to the goodness of the food God provides that Chapman moved from being trapped in her eating disorder for years into someone who enjoys her food and hosting her friends to meals, and expounds on a theology of food. You might want to read more from her at her blog The Catholic Table.
She includes a recipe at the end of each chapter. Unfortunately, these recipes are not what I normally eat so I have unabashedly added pictures of food that is more familiar to my stomach!
There are also short snippets on food advice, hospitality tips and stories of saints related to food, such as St. Anthony of Egypt, patron saint of butchers although a vegan, Doctor of the Church St. Hildegard of Bingen, who wrote on topics such as cooking, nutrition and cookies(!), and St. Honore, patron saint of bakers (so after many years, I have the answer to my question about the name of this shop).
♫ Makes me think of Taste and See