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Joachim Beuckelaer, "Kitchen Scene with Christ at Emmaus" (detail)

On the Table

Things: Issue Two

Stephen McGinley

Casey-Mae McGinley

Chicken on my Table Lay

‘Carnadine drips the blood
O’er the beak, in a flood.
Rhythmically he takes his breath
As he sings his song of death.
I, inward to him, watch
His sacrifice to catch.
Chicken on my table lay
For my children, end of day.

Loving “to the end,” as Christ does, constitutes the holiness demanded of the Christian. For persons to be holy or sacred, they must grow in the perfection of that love. For places to be holy or sacred, they must be places set apart for making us grow in love’s perfection.

The altar—and its domestic analogue, the table—is primarily a place of sacrifice: where one “does” or “makes” the “sacred,” a place where one grows in the perfection of love. While one normally thinks of sacrifice as offering something to God alone, the Christian recognizes in the Great Commandment (Mk 12:31) that love of God and love of neighbor are united and that both one’s offering to God and the offering to one’s neighbor are sacrifices. Giving up my best for the other who I do see is identical with giving up my best for the Other who I do not see (cf. 1 Jn 4:20).

Put another way, if we take Matthew’s account of the Last Judgment seriously, we will be judged to the extent that we do not accept the sacrificial character of the world: sacrificing food to the hungry is, in a profound way, offering sacrifice to God (Mt 25:31–46). Moreover, if we consider how creatures are related to other creatures by being for them to the perfection of the whole (cf. Aquinas I.I.47), we must also note that there is a God-given sacrificial character to all things. All things exist for others, bear the capacity to be offered, and offer themselves up, as it were, through their creaturely vulnerability. In a way that prepares for and participates in the altar, the table is the place around which and on which all things are gathered and offered through man to God for the perfection of love.[1]

Echoing Marius’ lamentation from Les Misérables, our empty chairs are at empty tables, not because friends have died in a revolutionary war, but because of a deeper revolution: the table and the hearth have been evacuated of their primacy in our homes, minds, wills, and appetites.

Just as the life of Christ has public and hidden moments, so too does the life of the Christian. Again, as Matthew’s Last Judgment makes clear, when you feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked, you do so unto Christ. Now the child comes into the world maximally hungry, thirsty, and naked. It is the home of the spouses that shelters him. It is the provision of the parents who clothe her. It is the stewardship of the spouses that feed and quench the child. This intimacy consummates at the table: the place where these moments of love, more hidden than public, reveal the sacrificial character of their lives.

The Christian table presupposes and perfects the table of the unbaptized, just as grace presupposes and perfects nature. By orienting us face to face, the table reveals both man to himself and the nature of the family as a communion of persons.[2] The table is the one place around which the home revolves. It is the center. The table draws every human experience to itself: joys, laughter, sorrows, mourning, correction, discipline, discussion, teaching, silliness, fighting and bickering, sacrifice, and love (cf., Jn 12:32). It is in the nature of the table to gather together, to unite the family for that which is necessary for human flourishing: eating and drinking in a human way. What happens at the table reveals our human fragility and vulnerability, it reveals our creatureliness and our gratitude therein.

In his essay, Leisure the Basis of Culture, Pieper describes the temple as the place of sacrifice and worship that is the grateful, communal celebration of the goodness of being “by praise of the Creator of this very world.”[3] Elsewhere, Pieper says that “if any specific day is to be singled out from the rest and celebrated as a festival, this can only be done as the manifestation of a perpetual though hidden festivity.”[4] The table manifests both the hidden and singular festivity: from simple meals to elaborate feasts. Just as the temple is the place set aside by the polis for celebration, so, in the home, the table is the place set aside for the family’s celebration. Just as feast days are holy time, so, the daily meals are the time separated out. The family’s celebrations participate in the greatest festival meals: Christmas and Easter. At these meals more than any others, the table is itself adorned with festival attire, foods that have taken time to prepare are brought forth from the larder or brine bath, drinks that have aged like homemade mead are poured, and celebrating is required of each member.

While the proper human disposition to celebrate is of paramount importance, so too is the proper disposition of the table itself. In A Pattern Language, the architect Christopher Alexander reflects on a common human experience: how sometimes, although we may be “together at the table, we are actually far apart.”[5] Alexander details how environmental conditions can either facilitate or hinder our experience of being together. Since we are phototropic creatures, lighting plays a key role: the light must illuminate the table alone to gather our attention. Moreover, the table itself, illumined by the light, must be a “heavy table in the center of the eating space large enough for the whole family or group of people using it.” The heaviness of the table bespeaks the gravity of the event, whereas a flimsy table, easily moved, indicates transitoriness. A heavy table also indicates stability of place and speaks to the durability of the family bonds that form around it.

Notice that Alexander does not consider the table only in itself, but in relation to both the rest of the environment and the people using it. The table is a place in and of relation. In relation to the space around it, the table must be proportionate and balanced, yet heavy and dominant. The human gaze is attracted to the sheer mass of the table just as it is attracted to the mass of the hearth. And yet, the mass must be in proportion to the place. A virtuous table, depending on the size of the home, also must be able to open out to welcome others around it. Table leaves serve this function, further facilitating the intimacy of the space.

The table does not merely facilitate intimacy within the humanum, but with the whole cosmos. The table is where the omnivorous family brings the whole of the world to become their flesh. Man realizes his nature as microcosm at the table by drawing all things into himself through eating, but in a human way, which is always more than just eating. When eating, we bring the full glory of human nature to bear: intellect, will, and appetite. I must know what I am eating. I must know that what I am eating died so that I could live, that I or someone else killed this thing for my sake, and that its form is that of sacrifice. To whatever extent possible, I ought to know who grew or raised my food and know something as to the kind of life it lived. But mere knowledge of the kind of life the organism lived is insufficient for eating in a human way. I must further conform my mind, will, and appetites to practices that correspond to the nature of that specific organism and not to farming practices that reduced that living organism to mechanism—to calories.

Participation in the husbandry or cultivation of the source of food makes the sacrifice that much more intimate. This is not limited to the farmer. As Wendell Berry points out in his short essay, “The Pleasure of Eating,” cultivating a potted culinary herb in a studio apartment helps move one toward this intimate participation. The care of plants and animals moves us out of a mechanistic gaze—where things are reducible to my use, bringing illness and premature death—and into an organismic gaze where what the thing is and the relations required for its flourishing make a claim on me and demand that I treat it accordingly.

The table makes abundantly clear that the human will, rather than constructing reality, is essentially and structurally receptive to reality and must conform itself to it. The table demands serving something in its reality. I cannot cook and serve beef shoulder as filet mignon. Kitchen alchemy proves just as vain as scientific alchemy. Raising plants and animals for the table helps us conform our wills to reality on an even more intimate level, since every act of the creature is wholly an act of God and wholly an act of the creature.[6] Only by conforming my will to what the thing is can both the creature itself and I flourish. Raising cows (herbivorous ruminants) like chickens (avian omnivores) yields sick cows, sick land, and sick humans. Raising chickens (avian omnivores) like horses (herbivores) yields sick chickens, sick land, and sick humans. Chickens, cows, and horses can live well on grain alone no more than man can live well on bread alone.

The table, as the place where our appetites are satisfied, requires that the human intellect take appetites far more seriously than we often do. Even Christians are tempted to relegate food to what is necessary for sustaining the body. Purportedly drawing support from St. Paul, who writes that the “kingdom of God is not one of eating and drinking, but of justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17), many Christians assert that it does not matter what you eat, how it is raised, etc., for indeed “everything is clean” (14:20). Therefore, I only need to govern my desires qua quantity not quiddity. However, this interpretation of St. Paul fails to conceive of eating and drinking as a matter of justice, where for Paul, in the new law of love of God and neighbor, I must not only love my neighbor and give them their due, but I must give each creature their due as participants in Christ’s salvific mission. While fully fleshing out an answer is outside the scope of this reflection, it does impinge on it and so we sketch a possible answer here.

When Christ says that “man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” His claim presupposes the natural truth of the statement (Mt 4:4). According to Genesis, every creature is a word that “comes from the mouth of God” since “God said, let the earth put forth/bring forth,” and it was so (cf. Gen 1:11, 24)[7]. His word brings forth things according to their kinds within orders of relation necessary for their flourishing. On seeing His word take root and/or take on flesh in particular creatures, God “saw that it was good” (Gen 1:26). God’s apprehension of creaturely goodness is directly related to his apprehension of their existence as this kind of thing in relation. Herein one can rightly speak of a kind of justice owed to all creatures insofar as they are words of the Word. Justice would require seeing as God does and treating creatures according to his intention—which is the creature itself. It would require conforming my actions to what a thing is and the sacrificial relations in which it is situated. Simply because animals are a source of meat and clothes for us does not mean that they are meat and fiber. This means that my appetites are only rightly ordered to the extent that I desire what is raised and/or grown in ways that correspond to what they are and how they reach their own ends: being what they are well.

What, then, do my appetites communicate and why? In his groundbreaking book, The One-Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka argues that the “more out of balance one’s body becomes, the more one comes to desire unnatural foods.”[8] If I am consumed with cravings for sugary substances or meat so soft and tender that it can only be obtained by denying a creature use of its God-given legs, then my appetites are contrary to justice. The table is set in such a way that it manifests what we see as good. If what we see as good is not good, then the table will reflect that. Something may seem to satisfy my appetites when in fact it does not. Not only can food itself not fully satisfy, but certain foods can never satisfy because they embed one in a way of being counter to Creation: every purchase of an egg from a debeaked, battery hen makes one complicit in the unnecessary maiming of Creation. Rightly ordered appetites reflect rightly ordered wills which reflect rightly ordered intellects which reflect a rightly ordered person as a whole.

The communion that occurs at the table encompasses the persons there as well as those who are absent: farmers, fishermen, and merchants. It also encompasses the subhuman creatures that lived and died for me to live and opens my eyes to the heavenly bestowal of these gifts and the celebratory thanks that alone suffices as a response—hence the religious imperative of grace before meals. A uniquely modern event undermines this: TV dinners. In our TV dinner age, the table has become vacant and sterile. According to a New York Times interview with Anne Fishel, executive director of the Family Dinner Project, only 30% of families eat “together regularly.” Eating in front of a screen evacuates the table of its centripetal power by orienting us not toward the sacrificial center, but toward a device. By removing the centering force of the table, it evacuates the meaning of participation in the community drawn to eat together.

Echoing Marius’ lamentation from Les Misérables, our empty chairs are at empty tables, not because friends have died in a revolutionary war, but because of a deeper revolution: the table and the hearth have been evacuated of their primacy in our homes, minds, wills, and appetites. Lacking the hearth and table evacuates our lives of love such that we must try to parasitically construct it.[9] The TV stands as the surrogate hearth, flickering with projections of someone else’s stories while our family’s memories are lost. Weak-willed, we no longer wish to undergo suffering in the formation of our children’s table manners. At restaurants we give children smartphones as little TVs to distract them. Our appetites are so shaped by a mechanistic industry that in 2020 “127.92 million Americans consumed frozen complete TV dinners.” Our orientation is not toward a shared, communal recognition of the creaturely realities from whence our food came, and the thanksgiving that would demand of us, but toward a convenient, nutrient-deficient consumption of empty calories that permit us to watch what seems to matter most: shadows on a wall.

Ineffective as data on child happiness and dining at tables may be for converting family’s hearts, perhaps recapturing our imaginations in festivity can move us toward reality. As Pieper says in In Tune with the World, festivity arises from “the joy of being a creature whom God has created out of joy.”[10] With St. John Chrysostom we can say, “where love rejoices, there is festivity.” Love, sacrifice, festivity, joy, and the table stand and fall together: the table is the place where love goes “to the end” (Jn 13:1).

[1] One could argue that St. John’s account of the Passion, in not mentioning the table until 13:28, is stressing the table’s participation in the Cross, submission to the Cross, orientation to the Cross, and final consummation in the Cross: the place where loving to the end is finished (cf. Jn 13:1 and Jn 19:30). This is especially the case insofar as we take St. John’s account to be at all Eucharistic and Liturgical. The table and the cross are a unity qua loving sacrifice.

[2] Cf., Gaudium et spes, no. 22; Familiaris consortio, nos. 15, 17–18.

[3] Josef Pieper, Leisure as the Basis of Culture (Ignatius Press, 2009), 65.

[4] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World (St. Augustine’s Press, 1999), 50.

[5] Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa et al., A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Language (Oxford University Press, 1977), 844.

[6] Cf., Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, q. 105, a. 5.

[7] Behind our thoughts here are St. Maximus the Confessor’s reflection on the Logos and logoi and Ratzinger’s reflection that every creature is the thought of God and so our thinking is a rethinking of his original thought. For further reading on the former, see Maximus the Confessor. “The Logos and the Logoi,” Communio: International Catholic Review 42 (Summer 2015), 301–08. For further reading on the latter, see Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity.

[8] Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming (NYRB Classics, 2009), 102.

[9] Cf., Redemptor hominis, no. 10.

[10] Pieper, In Tune with the World, 47.

Stephen McGinley, along with his wife Casey-Mae, owns and operates Good Soil Farm LLC in Emmitsburg, MD. A Masters degree graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, DC, Stephen is a Lecturer at his alma mater, Mount St. Mary’s University. He teaches in the Mount’s award-winning integrated core curriculum.

Casey-Mae McGinley, along with her husband Stephen, owns and operates Good Soil Farm LLC in Emmitsburg, MD where she homeschools their five children.

Posted on December 7, 2022

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