Table Matters: On St Thomas, Tolkien and Babette's Feast

Samuel Fontana

Babette’s Feast, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Penguin Modern Mini Classics, 1958

Babette’s Feast, directed by Gabriel Axel, 1987

What does it mean to “eat well?” Our relationship with food, even in ordinary daily eating and drinking, is one of the most fundamental ways we relate to reality. Food forms connections. Food connects man with himself: that is, as an embodied self. Food connects us with others. Eating together forms the social structure in which we learn the arts of companionship and celebration. Food, therefore, can even be said to open the possibility of connection with God. To eat well means to follow this dynamic of connection and foster its growth in daily living.

We learn our personhood at the table. But do we continue to take this humble pedagogy seriously? Can our daily eating and drinking not only form, but also heal and re-order our capacity for personal communion? To see this possibility, we must start from the very beginning: eating well means enjoying the food we eat. The pedagogy of the table begins with pleasure.

Pleasure is a fundamental principle in the moral theology of St. Thomas. Not because he is a hedonist, but rather a realist of the highest order. For Thomas, the world in which we find ourselves is one bursting with real objects full of their own goodness. Pleasure flows naturally within our relationship to reality. There are sensual and spiritual pleasures. We take pleasure (delectatio) in sensible objects—this delicious dinner; and we find joy (gaudium) in intelligible objects—our fellow dinner guests. But while distinct, pleasure and joy are rarely separable experiences. Man apprehends and acts as a unity of faculties, so it should be no surprise that pleasures and joys be found so often together. The connection between food and friendship is not merely circumstantial. There is an inner progression between the two, such that the pleasures of eating and drinking can actually prepare us, by their proper effects upon the soul, to enter the joys of communion. We are led to the higher by way of the lower.

Eating well requires attention to this upward and outward motion within us. Food integrates and reconnects our human nature: the body, the passions, the mind; the intellect and the will; the heart and the hearts of others.  But can food introduce us to what is beyond our humanity? Can it educate us toward God? The religious significance of food is apparent to both Jews and Christians. Both our scripture and our ritual tradition abound with it. Far more than its poetic value, however, eating and drinking is significant because it trains us, at least implicitly, for communion with God. Our basic religious problem is God’s radical transcendence. How can we come to desire what we have never seen, touched, or tasted? How can the mind grasp what resists definition, or the will open itself to what cannot be fully grasped?  To stand before God requires a posture of radical openness. As we have seen, there is a natural development from sensual pleasure to spiritual joy. This is, in addition, from joy a further expansion of the heart that opens even unto the transcendent. This, in common language, we call gratitude. Gratitude is the posture of receptivity before a good that transcends comprehension. Eating well opens the possibility of communion with God because it educates us in gratitude.

This upward and outward development of pleasure into joy then to gratitude has been famously portrayed in Isak Dinesen’s story Babette’s Feast (adapted for film by Gabriel Axel). Dinesen’s story speaks powerfully to our own generation because we, like the villagers of the story, are untrained in the school of eating well and skeptical about its power to elevate and perfect us. They, like us, suffer deep disconnection, both in their community and their relation to God. Salvation comes for them, unexpectedly, by being led along the pedagogy of eating well.

The story culminates in a great banquet, expertly prepared by the eponymous cook, but the dinner guests are unable to appreciate what is set before them.  As ascetical Christians, they have determined beforehand to “purify [their tongues] of all delight . . . preserving them for the higher things of praise and thanksgiving.” Sitting down together, they recite their customary grace:

 

May my food my body maintain,

 may my body my soul sustain,

 may my soul in deed and word 

give thanks for all things to the Lord!

 

But for all their piety, there is little holiness in their small community. They have grown old together, and have been reduced to bickering, rivalries, and resentment. The body may sustain the soul, but it does not elevate it. And the soul may continue its higher aspiring, but laboriously, if not begrudgingly. Something has broken down within them that must be awakened. They are a people without gratitude. One of the guests is not from the village and does not share the villagers’ asceticism. General Loewenhielm is a bon vivant—a worldy man—who has turned his back on the strictness of grace only to spend himself in the tedium of pleasure and ambition. He, like his devout tablemates, knows neither joy nor gratitude. But he still has a taste for food. And what food! As Loewenhielm eats and drinks freely, he realizes that this is no ordinary dinner. He attempts to share his delight with the others, but the conversation always falls back on the pious or quotidian trivialities. Loewenhielm alone recognizes the artistry of what is set before them in stark contrast to the strictness of its setting, and in the end he is overcome with the joy of such a gift. He rises, and trembling, voices his thanksgiving:

“Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us, but that we should await it with confidence and acknowledge it with gratitude. . . . See, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”

Loewenhielm rises to high praise, only by being carried on the upward surge of pleasure. And now, having opened his mouth in a true prayer of gratitude, his heart is open for communion. The rising action we have followed—from pleasure to joy to gratitude—now overflows back upon the heart and even to the senses: “Taciturn old people received the gift of tongues; ears that for years had almost been deaf were opened to it.” In the language of St. Thomas, expansion (dilatatio) leads to overflow (redundantia). The perfection of a higher power redounds upon the lower. In ordinary language, gratitude opens a capacity for deeper joy, and joy lifts a veil, allowing us to taste, hear, and see more deeply into things. With this renewal of heart and sight, the villagers become like children; they embrace and are reconciled. They have been reconnected through the meal they have shared, following unknowingly the inner movement of pleasure to joy, joy to gratitude, gratitude to reconciliation and the peace of shared love. Lowenhielm’s thanksgiving after the meal expresses effortlessly what the villagers’ strained to say in their grace before the meal. His prayer accomplishes what theirs aspires to: every faculty of body and soul rises in thanksgiving. Gratitude is the posture of receptivity before a goodness that transcends. Man is reconnected to God only as he resumes the posture of gratitude.

Like pleasure, gratitude is a spontaneous movement of the soul. It cannot be commanded any more than one could will himself to enjoy eating a food for which he has no taste. Like pleasure, gratitude must be cultivated. It is fragile and fleeting. And like most fragile things, it must be clothed in ritual. Ritual allows a compression of experience. In other words, in preserves at least the seed of a higher movement within the action of a lower. We cannot always expect in every encounter to be overwhelmed by great joy; instead, we plant the seed of joy in ordinary acts of friendship. We cannot expect to always and immediately come up against transcendent Goodness, and so we plant the seed of gratitude as we reverence the ordinary effects of God’s care, even the simple goodness of the bread with which we are nourished. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers we find this moving scene, which reminds us of the power of ritual in educating our eating and drinking:

Before they ate, Faramir and all his men turned and faced west in a moment of silence. Faramir signed to Frodo and Sam that they should do like-wise. "So we always do," he said, as they sat down: "we look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be. Have you no such custom at meat?" "No," said Frodo, feeling strangely rustic and untutored. "But if we are guests, we bow to our host, and after we have eaten we rise and thank him." "That we do also," said Faramir.

Perhaps many of us stumble along the learning curve of life because we do not take seriously enough the simplicity of this pedagogy. Why are we taught as children to bless our food and to give thanks? It is to keep before our eyes the joy of our eternal desire, for which these good things are only a preparation.

Samuel Fontana is a priest of Lafayette, Louisiana. He currently serves as parochial vicar of St. Joseph parish in Rayne. Prior to ordination, he studied philosophy at the Catholic University of America and theology at Mount St. Mary University in Maryland.