Thursday, October 30, 2008

`Spiritual Repasts'

I’m enjoying a favorite meal of fried fish, couscous and carrots. My kids like it too, in part because the youngest calls the side dish “goose-goose.” They thank me dutifully as I serve, as they’ve been taught, and unexpectedly I too wish to express gratitude for good food, family and friends, my books, the blog, the pumpkins we carved, the golden maple in the back yard, the whole damned thing. Mine is the dilemma of a thankful non-believer, but long ago a friend suggested that gratitude, if it’s nothing more than another precious, self-regarding “feeling,” is perfectly worthless. He suggested, instead, that I try to behave gratefully, and I’ve concluded that thankfulness-in-action is the foundation of a suitable life.

Charles Lamb wondered why people customarily reserve the saying of grace as a prelude to meals. In “Grace Before Meat” he writes:

“I own that I am disposed to say grace upon twenty other occasions in the course of the day besides my dinner. I want a form for setting out upon a pleasant walk, for a moonlight ramble, for a friendly meeting, or a solved problem. Why have we none for books, these spiritual repasts -- a grace before Milton -- a grace before Shakspeare [sic] -- a devotional exercise proper to be said before reading the Fairy Queen? -- but, the received ritual having prescribed these forms to the solitary ceremony of manducation [“The act of chewing.”], I shall confine my observations to the experience which I have had of the grace, properly so called; commending my new scheme for extension to a niche in the grand philosophical, poetical, and perchance in part heretical, liturgy, now compiling by my friend Homo Humanus, for the use of a certain snug congregation of Utopian Rabelaesian Christians, no matter where assembled.”

This is Lamb in grand, prose-as-pyrotechnics form, and books as “spiritual repasts” is especially fine. Food and books are everywhere in Lamb’s life and work. Holbrook Jackson, who called Lamb an “epicure of letters,” also wrote that “Bibliophiles are gastronomes, gourmets, gourmands, epicures…”

In July 1998, my soon-to-be-wife and I were in the terminal of the Albany, N.Y., airport, waiting for a flight to Boston, where we would connect with another flight to Halifax, N.S., an hour’s drive from where we would marry in a few days. I watched a small plane taxi to the terminal and out stepped Daniel Berrigan, the poet and priest whom I had interviewed several times and gotten to know during weekend retreats in the Adirondacks. We shook hands and I introduced Dan to my fiancé. He thanked me for the “gift of meeting Sylvia.” That part I remember with precision. Then he offered a blessing, a sort of grace, something to do with the Marriage Feast at Cana. Sylvia and I were a little embarrassed but Dan plowed ahead. I’m certain he mentioned his old friend Thomas Merton and urged us to practice “mindfulness and thankfulness” – words he often used to close his letters. He walked away carrying a small satchel. In “Grace Before Meat,” Lamb writes:

“A short form upon these occasions [the saying of grace] is felt to want reverence; a long one, I am afraid, cannot escape the charge of impertinence. I do not quite approve of the epigrammatic conciseness with which that equivocal wag (but my pleasant school-fellow) C. V. L., when importuned for a grace used to inquire, first slyly leering down the table, `Is there no clergyman here?’ -- significantly adding, `thank G---.’”


Anonymous said...

Despite being a rune scholar rather than a Xian i still feel vaguely uneasy if no one says Grace before a meal, if i eat in company. It just seems wrong, uncivilised, to eat without giving thanks.

Some people have a natural depth of self, have achieved an unusual equilibrium, that when they bless you, there are real benefits.

ken kurp said...

Daily I find myself thanking the men who long ago laid the roads I travel, the people who wove the cloth of my clothing, the insects and spiders that amuse me, the trees that gave me wood to work and especially the colors of the leaves and clouds in this most powerful of seasons.
Thank you

Anonymous said...

"Books as spiritual repasts" brings to mind the description of a medieval Jewish ritual, from Alberto Manguel's History of Reading:

On the feast of Shavuot, when Moses received the Torah from the hand of God, the boy about to be initiated (into reading) was wrapped in a prayer shawl and taken by his father to the teacher. The teacher sat the boy on his lap and showed him a slate on which were written the Hebrew alphabet, a passage from Scriptures and the words "May the Torah be your occupation." The teacher read out every word and the child repeated it. Then the slate was covered with honey and the child licked it, thereby bodily assimilating the holy words.