Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Food Thoughts

In Thoughts Matter, Sr. Meg Funk, O.S.B., explores the mental preoccupations that inhibit our ability to experience contemplative prayer and its fruits in our lives. "We can redirect our thoughts," she argues. "We can notice our thoughts at the first instance and can get control of our mind. A mind in control of itself is at peace." She outlines the process whereby a thought becomes an intention, which constitutes a motivation of the will to act on the thought. Thus, learning to exercise spiritual freedom begins with following the train of our actions back to their mental source.

She begins with the basic, instinctual impulse for food and drink. The first step in mental training is to become aware of how frequently we think of eating and drinking and the choices this leads us to make. Here, fasting can be of enormous help. Following John Cassian, Funk interprets fasting as putting food and our thoughts about food into healthy balance; for example avoiding eating between meals. Eat food that is local, seasonal, nutritional and well-portioned. Eat at set times that allow one to be focused on the practice of meal prepration and consumption. Eat with others as an act of hospitality.

The action of eating and drinking is an expression of our interior life. Are we compulsive, fearful, or insecure? Are we mindful and generous, or scattered and selfish? Are we greedy or grateful? These inner dispositions rooted in our thoughts are readily seen in our table practice. The renunciation of thoughts about food and drink is about moderation. "The value of moderation is that extremes do not become another thought and eventually more intrusive than the original thought of food . . . My thinking patterns are checked by my fasting practice, that is, eating at the appointed time, eating what is served and not desiring an inappropriate quality of food."

"The first struggle with food and drink is a wonderful place for beginners to start, even though we are all beginners; it takes a lifetime to develop disciplines into patterned lifestyles. The lessening of the grip of the thought of food and of drink eventually provides the opportunity for other levels of consciousness to emerge. This is why food and drink addiction are so harmful to the interior life. The seeker learns to resist thoughts, desires, and passions that return only to the self. The goal is to love God and be for others." I would add that this is also why global hunger is so dehumanizing: it stunts spritual as well as physical development.

Funk goes on to examine various precepts for ethical eating and drinking, including a caution against judging others in these matters. She concludes by saying, "Food should not dominate my consciousness; it is only a tool for my relationship with God. But on the other hand food should not be a barrier to keep me from deeper stillness and a predisposition toward prayer [e.g. hunger and malnutrition]. A fruit of the contemplative life is the joy of eating mindfully with gratitude."

I can only add that this is also a fruit of our Eucharistic practice. The sharing of Holy Communion is also a practice of eating and drinking with mindfulness and thanksgiving. When we are aware and grateful, we can then become the bread that is broken open to be shared with others so that they, too, might enjoy the feast.

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