A small, pale yellow square of paper hangs on one of my kitchen cabinets emblazoned with a quote by Brian Andreas: “There are things you do because they feel right and they may make no sense and they may make no money and it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other and to eat each other’s cooking and say it was good.” Living in a year-long, intentional community of seven full-time volunteers has taught me the lesson in this quote time and time again.
Several nights each week, someone in our Jesuit Volunteer community will cook dinner and we will all gather to share it. About a month ago, one of my roommates received some upsetting news. I asked, “What can I do?” and received the easily anticipated reply, “Thanks, but there’s nothing you can do.” It was only later, over the broccoli cheddar soup that I made for dinner, that the conversation came back up. “Remember when I said there was nothing you could do?,” she said, “I was wrong. You made me this soup.”
Food is a tangible way that we love each other. Food fulfills a physical need in us, but it also transcends the physical. Sara Miles, author of Take this Bread says, “There’s a hunger that’s expressed in food that’s beyond food, and that’s why feeding is always kind of a miracle.”
I work at Mustard Seed School, a school for the children of homeless families. Tall for 4 years old, Kiki (not his real name) was one of our students. He and I bonded many mornings outside his classroom door where he sat cross-legged crying, unwilling to enter the class. He never articulated to me the source of the immense sadness he was carrying, but he eventually grew to trust me. As part of my job, I often take some of the kids to breakfast at the day center for homeless women and children located right next door to the school. One morning late this past fall, I took Kiki to breakfast. The counter where breakfast is served cafeteria-style was too high for Kiki to reach, so I pushed his tray along the counter, and asked him about each item: “Would you like some juice? French toast? Oatmeal?” He stood in front of me, jumping up and down, the happiest I have ever seen him. Literally, jumping for joy. I don’t know what it was about this meal that let me glimpse the little kid underneath all the suffering, but his joy was undeniable. Sharing that meal with Kiki was an undeniable privilege.
As I think more and more about the meaning that food has in our lives, the more I see it everywhere. It’s on billboards, in the hand of the passerby on the street, and it’s all over the bible. Manna in the desert, the feast for the prodigal son, miracle of the loaves and fishes, and the last supper, to name a few. We talk about “spiritual food,” but less often think of food as spiritual. Nevertheless, if you have just taken a bite of a sweet and succulent strawberry, it’s hard to imagine that it is anything but a miraculous gift from God.
And food brings us together. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever ordered dessert with 6 spoons. Sharing makes food more delicious. In Luke’s gospel, the risen Jesus asks: “Have you anything here to eat?” Lk 24:41. I love the image evoked by Sarah Miles when she talks about a God who “rose from the dead to have breakfast with his friends.” It is striking—and it indicates the powerful role of food—that Jesus, risen from the dead, able to appear in rooms through locked doors, still participates in the embodied act of eating.
At the last supper, Jesus commands, “Do this in remembrance of me” as he breaks bread with his disciples. Lk 22:19. It’s a scene that we are reminded of each week in Mass, but the command applies to our weekdays as well as our Sundays. Jesus sits down and shares a meal with those he loves, and he asks us to do the same. What a delicious invitation.
Jenny Heil is currently a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps serving at Mustard Seed School in Sacramento, California. In 2010, she graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a B.S. in Psychology and Anthropology and interned with the Center for FaithJustice before joining JVC.