These 12 Days of Christmas we are walking through the rooms of a monastery to help us explore and deepen the rooms of our heart. On the first day we walked together through the gate, the entrance to the monastic space, which can be interpreted also as the walk inside ourselves. On the second day we invited you into the monastic cell, which also stands for the chamber of our heart. Yesterday we pondered the monastic church as a sacred place of shared spirituality we try to create in our own lives. Today we arrive at another central place of the monastery, just behind the chapel: the kitchen!
Indeed much of our Christmas tradition is build around the kitchen. Why this? Sharing meals together is a sign of hospitality, that most Benedictine of the virtues. By eating together we remind ourselves of the holy communion we share with others. The kitchen invites us to feast together, to share conversation and to nourish each other.
If we walk through a monastery, we would find the dining room, the “refectorium,” close to the chapel. Here is the place where the monastic community meets two or three times a day, just before or after prayer. The Latin reficere means “restoring.” Regular daily meals are meant to restore us to strength and health. Thus meals in the monastery are meant for more than food intake. They build community and are, at their heart, meant to nourish the physical and spiritual well being of the community. Because to eat is more than to keep alive. Just as we can eat Fast Food we also can eat Slow Food and eat our food slowly. We can contemplate the food and its place in our lives while we prepare, eat, and even clean up afterward. Tasting and enjoying a good meal can sharpen our senses and deepen our relationship with the fruits of the earth. Some say, love goes through the stomach. But even more, the Latin word for wisdom, sapientia, has its root in sapere, and means to develop a sense for the taste of things. Thus can we find some deeper spiritual layers to the way we nourish ourselves – a spirituality of food, if you will.
For Saint Benedict, kitchen and dining room are essential places in the community. They stand for the fullness of life, as well as for the virtue of moderation. Since neither food nor drink shall lead into excess. Benedictine moderation avoids extremes in both feasting and fasting. This sense for a healthy life style frees us to concentrate on finding God in all aspects of our lives.
Feasting and Fasting
It is said that monastics love to feast. And most of them would agree whole heartedly. Since they believe meals are more than adding some fuel to the body, they celebrate the festive character of each meal. Thus the dining room should be spacious and comfortable to offer a gathering place where the meal is neither rushed nor extended beyond its regular hour. The communion around the tables shall mirror the communion in life.
Surely you get to know a monastic culture when you get to know their eating culture. We have had the chance to share meals with many monastic communities around the globe. All of them share the basic rules, though each one is a different mirroring of the specific culture of the monastery. Many monasteries do not accept guests in their dining space (guests dine in the guest quarters). Others do have a designated space for guests in their midst or even enjoy mingling with the guests of the monastery. We have been in places where we had unforgettable conversations with nuns around the table, and places where we joined meals during which the community sat silently, listening to spiritual readings while nurturing their bodies.
As feast days offer feast meals to remind us of the feast of eternity, a spirituality of food includes also the reverse: to clean the body and soul of unnecessary attachment by refraining from food at regular times. This old wisdom is mirrored in every religious tradition around the globe. Religious communities celebrate feast days with wonderful meals, as well as observing fasting times also built into the religious calendar.
serving each other
Today people like to have eat-in kitchens. The times where the cook was tucked away in the kitchen while the guests dined are long gone. The preparation is part of the feast. Thus we both love to invite people over and cook together at our house, or be over to friend’s houses to share good food and community. Behind the idea of inviting each other for meals stands the idea of hospitality and serving each other. And when some one falls ill we cook chicken soup. Thus sharing meals also requires some one willing to serve, to do the work of the kitchen, to cook, and to clean.
Living in a small community of a household can make this a challenging task. Many households do not have time anymore to cook for each other or to share meals. Our society has a segregation of food, too. The poor are left with poor food, too cheap to nourish them well. But access to sustainable food which nourishes us and keeps us healthy should be a human right. As the monastics remind us, a healthy diet belongs to the fullness of life, and is important to sustain us and to create community. This counts even more so if you live alone. Do you make times for regular meals, serving yourself well, and celebrating table communion, even when dining alone?
Nurturing Body and soul
Hildegard of Bingen, the great medieval Abbess has written extensively on the monastic kitchen. For her, our daily meals are not only a mirror of our soul life but are a tool to gain wholeness and healing. In Hildegard’s vision, the work and harvest in the monastic garden, service in the kitchen, eating in the refectorium, praying in the choir, welcoming guests at the gate, all weave together into a tapestry of praise and prayer and service. Just as we need to create a space for our daily prayers or meditation, we need to create a place in our home and heart for feeding ourselves well. As we try to purify our soul and spirit we shall purify our bodies, by consuming pure and wholesome food.
What is your spirituality of food?
How can we make space for nourishing meals and table communion in our daily life?
How might you prepare your food with spiritual intention today?
Enjoying Spiced Wine. A Simple recipe
Did we mention that we love to share food and wine? One of our favorites in wintertime is spiced wine. It tastes even better knowing that Hildegard considers spiced wine a medicine. (It also works without alcohol, using grape juice or apple cider.)
The recipe is very simple. You take some red wine (a boxed one will do), straight or mixed with water, grape juice, orange juice, or cider, depending on the strength you prefer. Or you can replace the wine with grape juice or cider or some mix.
Then comes the blessing of Hildegard, what she calls the “spices of joy”, which are: cardamon, cinnamon, anise, cloves, and nutmeg.
Add some of the spices in a tea bag or directly to the liquid and simmer on low for approximately 10-20 min. You can also experiment with adding some fresh grated ginger and / or organic orange peel to the mix as well as honey to sweeten. Enjoy hot on a cold day!