My house's dining room is part of what I think they call the Great Room -- it's a combined living room and dining room, with a kitchen set apart by a counter only, not a completely separate room. We wanted it that way because our vision was that we had large central spaces to gather, and smaller private nooks tucked away in various corners of the house.
Thomas Howard asks us to consider the deeper significance of "dining" or eating our meals, and why the activity has commonly been associated with some kind of ceremony.
This made me wonder what dining and meals means to me, which in turn means thinking of the meals in my memory.
I grew up in a home where we ate dinner together every night as a family, gathered around the table. It was simply what we did.
At present my family eats meals together, except for the adult children who have left the nest, but we seem to have gotten in a habit of gathering around the living room in different chairs as we eat, each reading a book. Hmph. Not exactly the ideal. I keep suggesting that we go back to family meals at the dinner table but so far haven't gotten around to actually making it happen.
Then there is the sociological research, which often ends up confirming the wisdom of earlier generations --- so now there is evidence that regular family meals have broad benefits for kids, particularly. If you want smart, non-addicted, good kids, one of the best things you can do is eat meals together (with the TV off)
Who would think that family dinners could make kids do better in school and say no to drugs and have a more balanced diet? This is only one way that the reality of things seems expansive rather than reductive.
I don't know if our bookish meals count as family meals. We are together, eating a home-prepared meal, but it lacks something of the ceremony and shared experience of a tradtional family dinner table. So probably not. Hmph.
Besides my childhood, my present life and the American cultural landscape, the meals that I have kept most clearly in my mind are literary meals. I think CS Lewis says somewhere that meals are key elements of classic literature. Take a look sometime. How food is treated in a literary work reveals something of the philosophy or worldview of the book. For example, food, the provision and preparation and partaking of it, is a key, even central element in Scripture
- There are the recurrent celebratory feasts in the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. Epic stories seem to be associated closely with epic feasts. There are oxen roasted and wine drunk and lots of songs and later, competitive games.
- There is Abraham preparing food for the angels.
- There is the Passover meal, of course, and the manna made into a kind of cake in the wilderness.
- There is Heidi eating bread and milk and cheese with Grandfather, without a proper table, and later Grandfather making her own stool for her so they can both sit down.
- There is Lucy's tea with Tumnus the Faun, and the other Pevensies' meal with Mr and Mrs Beaver
- There are the feasts with the elves in Fellowship of the Rings
- Most of all there is the Last Supper, and later, the Risen Savior cooking and serving fish to His disciples.
The theme I see is the other ones Howard brings out -- the sharing aspect, the bringing together of things that are suited to the occasion, a certain gravity-- not mournful or stiff, but appreciating the very particular things involved in that meal. Grandfather's preparations for Heidi's meals are described with great care, as is Tumnus's very nice tea preparations for Lucy. The simple words describing the Last Supper seem to have deep pauses between them, which of course is reflected in the ceremony of the Mass today.
You can also see in all those literary meals how the occasion, humble in setting and trappings as it often was, provides or consolidates what we might now call a bond between the participants.
There is a kind of rhythm to a meal -- from the first preparations to the last cleaning up, and at the center of it the meal itself, a sharing in many ways. Every meal had its remote beginnings in the fields or vineyards or orchards, its mediate beginnings in the work of the farmer and later, perhaps, the work of the family to bring the food into the home, then the proximate beginnings of the meal in the preparations of the cook, and finally the gathering to sit down before it.
Kathleen Norris talks about this in Quotidian Mysteries -- how she was surprised to see the priest "doing dishes" at the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, but realized that it said something very real about beginnings and endings and the deeply significant nature of seemingly mundane tasks.
The other aspect that Howard brings out, that Kathleen Norris also emphasizes, is the repetitive "quotidian" nature of things like meals. We will come to the table again and again, thousands of times during the years of our lives But the dailiness of it does not take away from the significance. Kathleen Norris writes:
"The Bible is full of evidence that God's attention is indeed fixed on the little things. But this is .. simply because God loves us--loves us so much that we the divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life. It is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is "renewed in the morning" or to put it in more personal and also theological terms, "our inner nature is being renewed everyday".
Finally, there is the celebratory aspect -- the "something very like perfection" in the Homeric feasts. Pagans often seemed to intuitively associated the afterlife with bountiful provisions -- like the Valhalla of the Vikings. And in one of His parables, Jesus compared heaven to a great wedding feast, so it seems plain that God means us to associate the particularity and temporal nature of meals with joy and eternity In the wedding at Cana, among other things, Jesus seems to show how God takes the elements of an ordinary, biological series of events -- things planted and grown and harvested and prepared for the table -- and makes it way more than the sum of its parts.