Our bodies and souls are connected. Holy encounters are waiting for us in the things we taste, touch, see, smell, and hear. A table can be a temple. But how does that happen?
When I was in middle school, my mom had cancer. It shook me pretty hard. It shook all of us. It was the first time I remember feeling how fragile things can be, how one day your biggest fear is that you’ll get stuck next to the weird kid on the bus, and the next you find out your mom has this thing that could kill her.
She had a major surgery to remove the cancer. My grandpa took me to the hospital while she was recovering and left me alone in the room with her so she and I could visit. While I was in there, her lunch was delivered. Because of her operation, my mom couldn’t lift her hand to eat, so she asked me to help. I walked over to her bed, picked up a spoon, and began to feed her whatever passed for a meal in the hospital that day.
That was the moment when I lost my grip.
The whole cancer experience was one long encounter with my mom’s vulnerability. It was an extended confrontation with the fact that her body, like everyone’s, could be weakened or even destroyed. I had been doing everything I could to avoid that confrontation, but finally, after the surgery was done and she was essentially healed, it was the act of feeding her that finally overwhelmed my capacity to pretend I hadn’t been shattered by the experience. It wasn’t the diagnosis, the prayer times, the knowledge of what was happening in the operating room, or the worst case scenarios of what the cancer could do that brought me face to face with reality. It was a meal.
Whatever we eat, whenever we eat, we are faced with our need. Our contingency. Eating exposes our dependence. We can make ourselves strong and fit. We can shelter ourselves from the elements or build up endurance to face them. We can pad our checking accounts and build up our résumés and make ourselves impressive in so many ways. But then we have to eat. We can lie to ourselves about whether we need love and community by burying ourselves in isolation. We can live in myths about sex and work and a lot of other aspects of life, and we can persist in those myths for years without being confronted with their true nature. But our bodies will quickly disabuse us of any deception if we think we don’t need to eat. Every time we sit around a table eating together, we are acting out a shared confession: We are in need.