The Neighbourly Meal

Yesterday after the 11 am service here at the Cathedral, Sarah and I were invited to lunch at the home of a member of our Cathedral community. It was the first proper sunny, spring-like day of 2018, and so also a day when it’s especially delightful to enjoy the company of others.

And what a lovely meal it was. Our host had invited to old friends of her’s over as well. Wine was served with nibbles and then we gathered at her kitchen table in her lovely old terraced home for a delicious lunch of chicken in a cream sauce with potatoes, leeks, carrots, and green veg all finished off with a lemon tart. Conversations flowed easily and ranged over everything from my broken ankle to travel literature about Persia and Russia. I returned home in a happy glow to a very pleasant, post-prandial nap.

In some ways, there was nothing remarkable about this experience. Almost everyone has similar experiences on a regular basis. Be it in our homes or at restaurants, there’s little more enjoyable than to gather with friends over a good meal. Good food and good company are, as they say, good for the soul.

At the same time, there’s much about such meals that is remarkable–only we take it for granted. Let’s look at the essential ingredients of a good meal like this:

  • Let’s start with the invitation: our host could easily have decided that the meal sounded a bit too much like hard work for a Sunday afternoon. There’s the pain of arranging when to have the meal (and this did take us a while!), cleaning house, shopping for food, cooking the meal, and cleaning up afterwards. All that took time and care and commitment. Our enjoyment of the meal was a direct tribute to the care she had taken to host it.
  • The guests had not only to accept the invitation but to do so with a proper frame of mind. There’s a world of difference between a meal among friends and one among strangers. If we had all shown up with the intention of escaping as soon as possible, the lunch wouldn’t have worked. So, for the meal to work, her hospitality had to be matched by our hospitable attitudes.
  • Almost every aspect of the meal required and evoked delight. There was the delight in selecting the menu; the delight in preparing a delicious meal that made the most of the ingredients; the delight in opening up the comfort of ones home to others; the delight in our enjoying her well-kept home; the delight in conversation; and delight in the food itself.
  • Finally, there was the sociability we take for granted but is needed to pull off such occasions well. And part of that sociability is the awareness that such gathering require a degree of vulnerability and commitment. We had to be willing to share ourselves for the conversation to flow. But even then, we couldn’t guarantee that it would and so had to accept that we might be stuck for a few hours in a dreary situation. We haven’t yet reached the point when it’s acceptable to say, “Well, this isn’t doing a thing for me. I’m leaving.” I suspect that realisation subconsciously helps (along with good wine) the conversation to flow. How different it is from our so-called online communities,which we can exit in an instant if we don’t like what we see.

There are undoubtedly many more essential ingredients for meals like this. But these, at least, all share a timeless character. Human beings have always gathered for meals. Our’s was only a more genteel version of community meals shared by our ancient ancestors around their campfires. Such neighbourly meals also transcend particular cultures since they’re ubiquitous–every culture has it’s version. Indeed, most of them weave such meals into the fabric of their own culture. They are, if you will, where we are most culturally ourselves.

Almost everything that made the meal a success is also something that evokes neighbourliness. The care, attention, vulnerability, commitment, delight, and even timelessness found in the meal are also needed for our being good neighbours with each other. If we don’t take the time to meet and get to know those bound to us by geography, we’ll never really be at home where we live. Throughout history, this is what it has meant to be at home, to belong in a place where we dwell and among people we didn’t choose. The meal is thus a microcosm of our local society; a kind of ritual that elucidates our belonging to one another. In a sense, from the dinner table springs everything else.

Perhaps it’s no mere coincidence that fast food is emblematic of our consumer culture.

By contrast, food that has been lovingly prepared reminds us that neighbourliness includes the natural world. Little connects us more to the ‘bountiful earth’ than our delight in cooking, a delight which abounds when done for others. This is why we can’t really replicate such meals by gathering at a fast food restaurant; even ordering take away to be eaten together at a home evokes a different atmosphere. There’s a mysterious link between the care given to preparing the meal and the enjoyment of the company around the table; it’s a link built out of affection and gratitude.

When I chose the Latin word for a festive meal, convivium, as the name for our new initiative, I had meals like this at the back of my mind. There’s something indefinable about convivial meals that’s suggestive of how a society ought to be. Hospitality, good cheer, appreciation of food, drink, and conversation, mutual delight, and gratitude within a domestic setting comprise the ‘good life’ to which people aspire. There’s also no space for artifice; conviviality demands genuineness.

During our conversation yesterday, someone remarked how wonderful it was that Jesus was always sharing a meal with someone in the Gospels. I pointed out that in the culture of that time, to be ‘at table’ was a powerful, familial symbol. By sharing meals with tax collectors and sinner, Jesus was saying, ‘These are my family’. That symbol was reinforced by his teaching about neighbourliness in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. And, of course, within the Christian tradition, the way we best express our neighbourliness is by sharing the meal of Bread and Wine. Meals can be powerful symbols indeed.

We just need to figure out how to make it symbolic of our society and relationship with nature as well.

‘You are what you eat’ goes the old saying. Perhaps, then, the world we want to make in the future is shaped in part by the kind of meals we enjoy in the present.






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