I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Janeen Adil’s reflection on the holiness of food.
Farmland surrounded the small Midwestern towns where my parents grew up. Families there typically had a vegetable garden, including the Victory Gardens of the Second World War era. When my parents married, moved to Connecticut, and began raising a family, a large garden out back became a permanent fixture. Dad tended the plot, Mom tended what it produced, and we kids helped when and where needed. We were living in a farming community that had been established over 250 years ago, and having one’s hands in the soil was simply a way of life.
Now, as an adult, I remain grateful to my parents for my own hands-on experiences of nature’s growth cycles. I’ve felt comfortable in my knowledge of where my food comes from: seed to harvest, production to table. My knowledge was comfortable, that is, until I took part in a spiritual exercise centered on that most universal and necessary of activities: eating.
One Sunday, our then-pastor invited us into a unique time of worship. Referring to it as an experience of mindful eating, he had—with some good help—transformed a small, basement church fellowship hall into new life. We were greeted by tables carefully set with nice plates and small bowls of enticing foods. Strings of lights brightened the space; a curated playlist of reflective tunes softened the background.
The pastor led us through nearly an hour of encounter with our food. Grounded in holiness, we contemplated the morsels set before us. Where had they come from? What had been the interactions between nature and humans to produce this bounty?
Before that morning, I had studied and participated in various Christian spiritual practices regarding food, from fasting to feasting, from mindfulness to contemplation. There was also the “slow food” movement, which invited people to pay attention to their food, as did the call to “eat locally.” Overarching all the focus on food, I saw, was gratitude. In consuming what was offered, we presented grateful hearts to God; for me, this harkened back to a daily, familial grace we took turns praying at the dinner table.
This time, though, in the church basement, something happened. I was caught unawares: In a moment of crystallized recognition, I saw the utter miracle of something as commonplace as bread. Words cannot properly frame the insight I was granted. Suffice to say that in my mind’s eye and on an intimate level, I followed the progression through a grain of wheat’s germination to its maturity. Each step involved the long work of transformation, as innumerable cells reproduced and grew to fulfillment.
Then came the harvest and the milling of flour, mixing of ingredients, baking, and the distribution of the finished products to local grocery shelves. All along the way, the processes of nature and the work of many, many human hands combined to make this bread—a food both simple and wondrous—possible. Yes, there was holiness here, and mystery.
Benedictine monk Br. David Steindl-Rast has discussed these layers of connections around our food. In a 2015 interview with Krista Tippett for her “On Being” radio show, he shared this:
I remember, the grace that Buddhists pray before a meal starts with the words “Innumerable beings brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us.” And when you put that into practice and look at what’s there at your table, on your plate, there is no end to connectedness.
Since that day, I’ve tried to carry this heightened awareness forward. I’ve always been drawn to food’s colors—say, the sunset hues of a blood orange, or the green shadings in a single leaf of romaine. Now, though, I also seek to remember the intricate dance that brought my food into being: to remember, to wonder at the utter miracle of it all, and to rejoice with thanks.
I’ve been helped in this by a pastor friend who recently taught me a simple contemplation for eating, one I share now with my fellow monks in the world.
As you take your first bite, linger… ask God to feed your spirit, just as your body is now being fed.
And as you take your last bite, linger… give God thanks for the blessing of the earth, soil and sun, for the labor that brought the food to you, and for the blessing of the food itself.
It’s far too easy to take our food for granted. May we instead acknowledge the works of nature and the works of human hands that supply “our daily bread” and in so doing, offer gratitude for the grace of the miracles involved.
Janeen R. Adil is a spiritual director, writer, and teacher; within the United Church of Christ, she is a Commissioned Minister of Christian Spirituality. Through her freelance business Hungry Soul Ministries, she offers workshops, retreats, and direction. She lives in eastern PA, in a farmhouse built by English/Welsh Quakers over 200 years ago.