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The Divine Influence of Eating
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The Divine Influence of Eating

A History Perspective on Faith & Food

Words by Jessica Crooke
Illustrations by Cesar Diaz

Oct. 3, 2018

Guest edited by   Nicole Ziza Bauer

Editor’s Note: Contributor Nicole Ziza Bauer has been a strong voice in the Life & Thyme community for some time, and when we decided to pursue a Guest Editor series, we knew she’d have something powerful to say. Ziza brings readers a curated collection that explore a topic to which we can all relate: being overwhelmed. We’ll share stories about using food as the foil to that feeling. About how something as simple as enjoying, cooking, or considering a meal can help us recalibrate, re-center, and rediscover the joy of eating—and reclaim ourselves. Today marks the third story in a series of four, releasing weekly.

For my college world religions class, I was required to visit a local Gurdwara in Los Angeles, a sacred place where Sikhs come together for congregational worship. As I sat through the service—an eager college student with notebook in hand, ready for diligent notetaking to ensure my A in the class—I felt foreign amidst the ceremonies and culture of people with which I was totally unfamiliar.

Afterwards, I joined the congregation as we moved down the hall to a kitchen. I was handed a plate and directed to a line where I arrived in front of heaping dishes of rotis, daal and dessert, served by both men and women from the community.

As we all sat together, I no longer felt out of place. Amongst people and a culture so removed from my own, food was the bridge to common ground.

A meal can be had in many different circumstances. It could be a rushed drive-thru on the way to work, inhaling a breakfast loaf to satisfy a growling stomach. It could be the Sunday bread, serving as representation of something divine—or, in the case of the Gurdwara, the langar meal that was lovingly prepared and prayed over to feed the community.

Interacting with food within the structure of religious tradition invites us to acknowledge something deeper surrounding the growing, preparing and serving of a meal. Food can unite us through commonalities and shed light on the intricacies that make each of us individuals.

THE SACRED TEXTS

When we study world religions, we see food scattered throughout sacred texts.

Practicing Muslims eat specific foods (halal) and abstain from forbidden foods (haram) as directed by their holy book, the Qur’an. Under Islamic law, following halal and haram are a matter of obedience to God, as well as the interests of cleanliness and health.

Judaism is so tightly interwoven with daily food mandates that seeing the term Kosher in a grocery store is a normal occurrence. There are strict directives surrounding kashrut (which translates to “fitness”) as found in the Torah, which demand abstinence from certain foods and various combinations. Clear kitchen customs are set in place to help abide by these laws, such as keeping separate dishes and utensils—one set for dairy, one set for meat.

In Jainism, an ancient religion with a history of over three thousand years, practicing Jains are called to abide by a vegetarian diet. This allows them to properly live out the core principles outlined in the teachings of Lord Mahavir, which were compiled by his followers into many texts collectively known as Agams. The doctrine of Ahimsa, which is the ethical principle of not causing harm to other living things, is the standard by which all actions, including food preparation and consumption, are judged.

Some of these sacred texts are straightforward with their instructions. The Torah makes it explicitly clear in Leviticus 11:8 that Jews should not eat pork, stating, “Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcass shall ye not touch; they are unclean to you.” For Jains, it is about following a principle at the heart of their teachings; not causing harm to other living things would, of course, include food.

OUR BODIES TO SCIENCE, OUR SOULS TO RELIGION

Modern Western cultures have tended to separate things of body from things of the soul. John Barton, professor of religion and director of the Center for Faith and Learning at Pepperdine University, traces this back to the classical Greek philosophy of dualism, which fully takes its modern form in Descartes, whose body-and-soul dualism assigned our bodies to doctors (science) and our souls to clergy (religion).

“All of the world’s major religious traditions have a much more blended understanding of our physical and spiritual dimensions and one of the ways this is demonstrated is in the relationship between religious practice and food,” Barton explains. “The preparing, eating and sharing of food plays into many different religious understandings and practices including worship, fellowship and morality.”

THE FAITHFUL

Hasendra Shah, a practicing Jain and member of the Southern California Jain Center, is able to easily weave the core principles of Jainism together with their dietary practices. For Shah, understanding a Jain diet is directly related to a key principles of their faith: non-violence.

“The main thought process for Jains is non-violence—that for your own existence, you must harm other living beings as little as possible,” Shah says. “For Jains, any meat product that comes from an animal source is based on some sort of serial violence to the animal kingdom.”

By their definition, violence can even be found within a plant-based diet. Shah explained the Jain principle of minimizing violence to the highest evolved life, starting with humans, then animals, followed by plants and other microorganisms. Therefore, most Jains refrain from root vegetables that grow beneath the ground, like potatoes. “We believe that one little potato would support multiple lives within just one unit,” Shah articulated.

While he did acknowledge Jainism believes humans to be the most advanced form of living being, Shah explains the belief in “democratizing all living things as uniquely endowed and equivalent to ourselves.” This is directly applicable when it comes to diet.

A typical Jain meal includes some sort of vegetable curry, lentil soup, and a tortilla-type bread. Seasoning avoids strong spices like garlic and rich ingredients like butter or oil, as they are believed to make one “aggressive” in nature and are deemed unhealthy for the body.

“For your spiritual self, you support the physical self as sustenance, but that’s not the main objective,” Shah says. Therefore, food, a necessity for the physical self, is merely a means to a healthy spiritual self.

Yet, then we see religious figures such as Mother Noella Marcellino, “The Cheese Nun,” a woman with a very different approach to food and the spiritual self. Within the walls of her abbey she has become a master of her craft after years of study and dedication to cheese-making. She is quick to explain the philosophical correlation between vocation and avocation.

“In our life, being so close to the earth as we are, we learn from creation and we learn about ourselves,” she is quoted as saying. “As a cheese-maker and being someone who has spent so long in the cellar, I’ve pondered that cheese is a very smelly, musty-tasting decomposition, yet it’s delicious—not unlike the promise of tasting the resurrection.”

Sixty-year-old Zen Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan, perhaps best known for being featured on Chef’s Table, explains on the show, “There is no difference between cooking and pursuing Buddha’s way.” She tells viewers, “I make food as a meditation. I am living my life as a monk with a blissful mind and freedom.”

Their differences are apparent, yet so are their commonalities. For Shah, food and the soul are not separate entities that exist within his faith, but are seamlessly linked. It’s not only in church that Mother Noella feels the presence of God, and Jeong Kwan actually uses the food she prepares and eats as a meditation vessel. Through food, there is a common ground. There are shared practices and familiar rituals that have the power to connect a Jain scholar to a Zen Buddhist nun or even to a cloistered Benedictine nun.

SHARED GROUND

Back with Professor Barton, he identifies key examples of shared ground across religions, such as a shared idea of table fellowship with other people in the community and faith. “It is a great leveling practice for humans,” he explains. “We all must eat. Our bodies and their needs connect us to one another, to the earth, and to the divine.”

Food as the direct connection to the divine is a theme across multiple faiths. In the Christian holy meal (or Eucharist/Communion/Lord’s Supper) Barton explains, “Christians understand the eating of the bread and drinking of the wine as a form of eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ. While this may sound odd to non-Christians or modern skeptics, it represents a very embodied practice in which faith is not just about invisible spiritual realities, but is about earth and body.”

Connecting faith to the body is also seen in the spiritual ritual of fasting. During the annual fast of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from all food and drink during the day for an entire month as a means to increase self-control during their most holy month of the year. Each evening, they “break fast” by celebrating iftar dinners which bring together family, friends and neighbors to enjoy food and fellowship.

Similar fasting rituals can be found within the Christian season of Lent or the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. For Catholics, observing the forty days of Lent is a way to replicate Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and withdrawal into the desert for forty days. Therefore, all Catholics between the ages of eighteen and fifty-nine are required to fast on both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, also to abstain from meat on these days and throughout all Fridays of Lent.

During Yom Kippur, the Torah outlines a day to “practice self-denial.” The Jewish fasting on Yom Kippur provides an opportunity to make the celebration personal. By slowing down their biological rhythm, Jews feel they are able to more earnestly communicate with God and achieve an internal calm that leads to an inner awakening.

FOOD FOR THE SOUL

In this exploration of organized religion, there is another group of people whose spirituality is connected to the food they prepare and eat, yet has nothing to do with a sacred text or religious mandate.

For the agnostic, the atheist, or even someone eschewing a label all together, the absence of traditional religion does not necessarily make food less spiritual.

When interviewing Wiccan chef and restaurant owner Lara Hanneman, she describes her cooking as something that “comes from the soul.” As a chef and owner of The Cauldron in Buena Park, California, Hanneman acknowledges the unique and special ability that food has to promote conversation and shared ground—especially when differences carry so much potential for division. She intentionally makes her food portions small to encourage networking and tolerance. “I think if people take the time to listen to each other, it’s usually over food and drink,” she says.

WE EAT TO LIVE

The contents of this reflection merely scratch the surface. Yet, it would be doubtful that a full understanding of how food meets soul could ever be comprehensively identified.

To accurately understand the connection to Christ his followers feel when taking Holy Communion—yet also comprehend the enlightenment of the historical Buddha through the “Middle Way,” the place between ascetic denial of pleasure and hedonistic indulgence—seems impossible. The correlation between what we eat and what we believe, and how much shared ground that affords us, is mysterious, powerful, and awe-inspiring.

Perhaps, we can just simmer it down to the facts: we must eat to live. How can we not feel a spiritual connection when the preparation and consumption of food gives us more life to enjoy? What a miraculous gift that is.

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