Helen Pears from Bristol reviews Eating Heaven – Spirituality at the Table by Simon Carey Holt. (Victoria, Australia: Acorn press, 2013)
As many small Christian communities, including ours in south Bristol, gather around the table as a central feature of life together, I was intrigued by the title of this book and what it might have to offer in terms of helping our understanding of some of the dynamics at work around those tables.
Carey Holt speaks of his motivation for writing the book as arising from the conviction that “it is important that we value what takes place at our tables, finding ways to embrace them more intentionally and intelligently than we presently do”. He wants to encourage us to live with more awareness of the sacred in the everyday and to note the connections between what we eat, the way we eat it and who we eat with, and what we value.
To help explore these themes, Carey Holt invites us to spend time thinking about what he terms, the various “tables of daily life” that “play host” to our eating. He identifies eight common places of eating: the kitchen table, backyard or garden table, café table, 5-star restaurant table, the work table, and the festive, multi-cultural and communion tables.
The author, based in Melbourne, Australia, is both a trained chef and a theologian – a combination which, for an enthusiastic cook such as myself, sounds wonderful to start with! Although his professional interest in food and the kitchen is evident, this is not a book specifically aimed at those for whom cooking is a passion and food a primary interest. Nor is it a book with a romantic view, unaware of the complexities and tensions that exist around the subject of food. Under each ‘table’ heading, Carey Holt tries to tease out some of the questions that each setting might ask about identity, cultural values and human behaviour, as well as acknowledging the role these tables also often play in terms of power, injustice and exclusionary practices. Asking us to be mindful as to who is not at the table is a recurring and important theme of the chapters too.
It is a book that wants to remind us that eating is not just a functional or biologically necessary act, incidental to the ‘important’ bits of living, but how we practise it is a way of grounding, or fleshing out, “some of the most important aspects of what it means to be human and what it means to live a grace-filled life in communion with each other and the earth”. Carey Holt employs many lovely turns of phrase which act as encouragements that within the small and normal actions of everyday life we can find possibilities for transformation. He speaks, for example, of vegetables harvested from a back yard as helping “to overcome the environmental challenges of the world table one meal at a time”. Or of a café table acting as a “place that tames the city”, a way of finding orientation and focus within the complex flows of the large urban sprawl.
It is not as deeply theological as I had perhaps expected, and there are a couple of weak chapters where the opportunity to press the questions are not followed through as well as I would have hoped. Sadly, this included the chapter on the communion table where the idea of connection was well made and then, I felt, somewhat undermined by the story of two cafés which seemed to epitomise disconnection and separation instead of embrace. Similarly, many of the issues raised are probably ones that many of us are already aware of and might like the discussion to go further as to the sort of ways in which we might approach them.
However, the book is very accessible and the idea of tables is an imaginative way of inviting us to take a good look at our own neighbourhoods and communities, and their ‘performances’ around food; to think about where our ‘tables’ might be, and to keep our eyes open enough within the familiarity of our eating to question the “seating arrangements”; and to rise to the challenge of living creatively with the shadowy side of table life that speaks, for example, of inequality, self-indulgence, painful relationships with food and drink, or contested time and spaces. The chapter on feasting is particularly interesting in this respect.
Eating Heaven is definitely an interesting read and as a little food for thought, I’ll end with a quote from page 133:
A life-giving spirituality of the table flourishes best when my life at one table is connected with my life at all tables, and when the way I sit at each table flows out of my deepest commitments, whatever they may be.
Take This Bread
For an inspiring story of the transformative nature of the communion table and of how generous and radical welcome there spilled out into wider community engagement, I would also highly recommend the book by Sara Miles, Take This Bread ( New York: Ballantine Books, 2007).
Sara Miles has spoken quite widely across the UK and at events such as Greenbelt, so this may already be a familiar story to many of you. The book is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking account of her first, and very literal, ‘taste’ of Jesus and the subsequent disruption this caused to the course of her life. A well-written, good read!