Written by Ian Dewar, Lead Chaplain at the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust.
‘The tree which grows on Mount Sinai gives oil and a condiment for man’ (The Quran 23:20)
‘Take and eat’ Jesus Christ (The Bible, Matthew 26: 26)
‘Choose food, clothing and shelter that accords with nature’ Lao Tzu (Hua Hu Ching)
Wherever you look in the past, food has been linked with spirituality and philosophy. Eating is a reflection of value. It is precisely this link, this understanding of life, that calls into question. In modern western culture, with its instant, processed fast foods, food has become a reflection of non-value.
The question is, why? Why has food literally and spiritually lost its value?
Concentrating on the major ancient traditions, one common theme stands out. Every religion or spiritual tradition that has a positive view of food has a positive view of what humans can be. The truly profound thing is that this is not a naive, ‘Disneyfied’ view of humans. All the great traditions speak of the flaws, weaknesses, selfishness and blind stupidity of humanity and yet, at the same time, speak of the potential of humanity.
Each one of us can be greater than we are. Each one of us can be a deeper, richer, more noble version of ourselves. Each of us, according to the ancient traditions, has a vocation to be that better self.
What, you may ask, has all this to do with food? I will concentrate here on my own religious tradition, simply because it is the one that I know best. You can apply this to any spiritual practice of your own better than I can.
The quotation above: ‘Take and eat’, is preceded by the words ‘took bread, gave thanks and broke it’, and is followed by; ‘this is my body’. Food becomes central to an act of community and self-sacrifice. We become greater when we give ourselves to something greater. It is a vocation, it is a journey and to complete a journey you need sustenance, food. In this instance, food is tied to a story that gives meaning and purpose. Bread becomes more than bread.
The great challenge that lies before us is to rediscover a vision of what it means to be human, and that means rediscovering a vision of food and what it means to eat. Is that our vocation?