My family has recently taken to making bread. The impetus for this was less artisanal than our desire to enjoy loaves of bread without the plastic bags they invariably come in. For a couple of months now we’ve been working hard to reduce our use of plastics, made easier (I must say) by the nearby Indoor Market with it’s butcher and produce.
I can’t say that we’ve mastered the art yet, but the smell of the baking bread and the imperfect results are enough to satisfy. As with most things, too, there’s a special delight in enjoying what your own hands have made…even if the technique of slicing evenly continues to elude me. It’s also fun to experiment with different ingredients to see what they produce.
When making our bread, we generally use varying ratios of white and wholewheat flour, ground from grain milled from wheat grown in some unknown field. Although there are pressing issues pertaining to wheat production (see here and here), the growing, milling, and baking of wheat into bread is one of the most ancient practices of settled humanity. In fact, we surmise that it was the discovery of how to do this that led us to hang up our walking staves and settle down. From bread springs all of human civilisation.
This memory of the impact of grain on humanity perhaps explains why it played a role in most Near Eastern and Mediterranean religions. The ancient Egyptians had the goddess Renenutet, the Greeks Ceres, and the Romans Demeter. Each of these religions used bread in their rituals, offering it to the gods for plentiful harvest, fertility, and childbirth. In each case, the ordinary produce of the earth, grain, was sanctified by an offering to the gods: earth and the divine came together ritually to give meaning to the people.
We see this dynamic powerfully expressed within the Jewish tradition in the Passover meal. The matzo, or unleavened bread, recalls the bread baked in haste by the Hebrew slaves (Exodus 12.39) before they fled captivity in Egypt. At the start of the meal, the bread is called the ‘Bread of Affliction’ that the Hebrew ate during their slavery. But at the end of the meal, it’s called the ‘Bread of Freedom’, signifying their escape through the power of YHWH. Rabbi Sacks explains how the two can be the same thing:
Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings. One who fears tomorrow does not offer his bread to others. But one who is willing to divide his food with a stranger has already shown himself capable of fellowship and faith, the two things from which hope is born. That is why we begin the seder by inviting others to join us. That is how we turn affliction into freedom.
Within the Christian tradition, bread is the focus of the Eucharist and (depending on the tradition) either is or symbolizes the Body of Christ. ‘This is my body given to you. Do this in remembrance of me’, Jesus is recalled as saying at the Last Supper. In that Passover meal, he took the Jewish symbolism and reoriented it to express a freedom that comes through faith in and love of him that spring from his broken body on the cross. The Eucharistic meal continues to this day to be the shared, symbolic meal of Christians as formative of us as a people as the Passover meal is for Jews. In it, we encounter the same ancient dynamic of heaven and earth uniting to evoke meaning for the people who share it. History seems to suggest that this is the only way we can collectively discover meaning in this chaotic world. I believe it also demonstrates that it’s the only sustainable way for us to value the natural world as a gift to be honoured rather than just a resource to be exploited.
One aspect of the cultivating-milling-baking process that I believe is unique to Christian is how it symbolizes fellowship. The image of scattered grain gathered together to form one loaf of bread captured the imagination of early Christians as an evocative symbol of unity. The earliest example of this comes from The Didache, written sometime during the first 150 years of the Church:
As grain was scattered over the hills and then was brought together and made one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom (9.4).
Here we find the striking image of a multitude of grain dispersed across a landscape being brought together to form a single, nourishing loaf of bread. This was understood to represent the activity of God in the world: in Christ the dispersed and warring nations were being gathered together as one. Thus, the Eucharistic bread symbolized not just the Body of Christ but also humanity united in a fellowship of love. The bread that brings meaning also instills a mission: ‘This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you’. Mandatum is the Latin word for commandment and the origin of the name for today, Maundy Thursday, when Christians recall Christ’s Last Supper.
In the early 5th century, Augustine of Hippo gathered all these images together in a series of striking sermons. In his Sermon 227, he writes,
In this loaf of bread you are given clearly to understand how much you should love unity. I mean, was that loaf made from one grain? Weren’t there many grains of wheat? But before they came into the loaf they were all separate; they were joined together by means of water after a certain amount of pounding and crushing. Unless wheat is ground, after all, and moistened with water, it can’t possibly get into this shape which is called bread. In the same way you too were being ground and pounded, as it were, by the humbling of fasting and the sacrament of exorcism. Then came baptism, and you were, in a manner of speaking, moistened with water in order to be shaped into bread. But it’s not yet bread without fire to bake it. So what does fire represent? That’s the chrism, the anointing. Oil, the fire-feeder, you see, is the sacrament of the Holy Spirit.
The simply materials of nature signify and enable people to grab hold of meaning in this world and allow us to see ourselves reflected in the simplest products of a bountiful earth. As with Christ’s parables, we discover God not in majesty, high thoughts, or mystical vision but in the ordinary stuff of the earth. The same grain that brought scattered humanity together to form civilization now brings scattered humanity together to be formed by God.
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:
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.
“Industrialism…has been from its beginnings in a state of riot. It is based squarely upon the principle of violence towards everything on which it depends, and it has not mattered whether the form of industrialism was communist or capitalist; the violence towards nature, human communities, traditional agricultures, and local economies has been constant.”
Wendell Berry, ‘In Distrust of Movements’
Christians believe that human beings are broken. On the one hand, we’re dust breathed into life by Love, capable of compassion, generosity, kindness, and joy. On the other hand, we’re fallen creatures who bend our selfish wills against our Creator, creation, and each other. Nobility and savagery sit side by side in every human heart.
In one of his sermons, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, portrays these two tendencies as opposing impulses of identity: to identify ourselves either with or against the other. In our better moments, we identify ourselves with God, with the created world, and with our neighbours–this is love. In our worse moments, we identify ourselves against God, against the created world, and against our neighbours–this is pride. The first is an act of peace, the second an act of violence.
As the quote from Wendell Berry at the start of this post argues, from one perspective the Industrial Revolution can be seen as being based on ‘the principle of violence towards everything on which it depends.’ People like C.S. Lewis, Jacques Ellul, and R.S. Thomas tried to draw people’s attention to the dangers of the ‘Machine,’ by which they meant the development of technological means for imposing the human will on more and more of the natural world. Through technology, so the old rhetoric goes, humankind can break through the limits imposed on us by nature and fashion a world of our own making. Nature was no longer something with which we had to cooperate (like it or not) but that which must be conquered and dominated for our own good–be that economic prosperity, public health, the enlightenment of ‘backwards’ people, or the enrichment of the powerful.
Throughout his many essays, Berry points out the absurdity of believing that violence enacted on the present will lead to a better future,
“We do as we do, we say, ‘for the sake of the future’ or ‘to make a better future for our children.’ How can we hope to make a good future by doing badly in the present, we do not say. We cannot think about the future, of course, for the future does not exist: the existence of the future is an article of faith. We can be assured only that, if there is to be a future, the good of it is already implicit in the good things of the present.”
Or as Jesus says, ‘Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.’ One of the reasons for this is that because the future is only a fiction, it can be used to excuse all sorts of villainy in the present. The ends justify the means. After two hundred years, we’ve become thoroughly accustomed to the idea of putting up with ugliness and inhumanity in the present in the belief that we’re thereby progressing towards a bright future. That future will assuredly be achieved by identifying ourselves against the world in which we belong and overcoming it.
Once we transcend distance, physical limitations, and death itself we can finally live like gods.
One of the most influential passages I’ve ever read (and have quoted in 2 of my 3 books) comes from a letter that J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote to a fan. He distinguished between ‘Art’ and ‘Magic’, the first found among his Elves and the latter, most blatantly, with Saruman and his attack on Fanghorn and later his corruption of the Shire.
While Art grows from a desire to be ‘sub-creative’ that is ‘at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world’, Magic ‘rebels against the laws of the Creator’ and leads ‘to the desire of Power, for making the will more quickly effective,–and so to the Machine…By the last I intend all use of external plans or devises (apparatus) instead of development of inherent inner power or talents–or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 131
What does all this mean in the present? It seems to me that the mounting fears of the present–pollution, climate change, soil erosion, growing inequalities, creaking institutions, loss of social cohesion, and even the managerial revolution–are pressing us powerfully to examine ourselves root-and-branch. For all of our achievements of the past 200 years, we have created–are creating–a world that seems increasingly unsustainable. As I used to say to my undergraduate students in my class on the medieval church: ‘Say what you will about medieval society, at least it could have lasted until the end of time. The jury’s still out on the longevity of our own society.’ Even the late Stephen Hawking was less than optimistic about humanity’s current trajectory.
But the future, as I said, is a fiction. What we do know in the present is that we and the world aren’t getting along very well. The violence of machines and systems imposes itself on the world as we develop at a frantic pace new means of bending that world to our individual and collective wills. And having banished the sacred, we find it hard to explain why we must accept sensible limits on how we live or with what we may tinker.
The answer to this isn’t to complain about the world or despair about the future. It’s certainly also not to demonize others, to add to the cacophony of debate and discord. This is our time; this is our present. Armed with the wisdom of the past, we must do what we can to live well in the present. Part of that old wisdom is the conviction that living well means embracing the virtuous life by upholding all that is good, true, and beautiful. Coming together with our neighbours to nurture that ‘good life’ is the best way for each of us to plant the kinds of seeds that may blossom and bear good fruit for the future.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
…there was a magnificent palace. A palace larger and shinier than had ever been seen before. In the palace lived all the kingdom’s nobility: a prosperous people who enjoyed every pleasure imaginable.
Almost anything that they could dream up could be conjured for them by the wizards of the palace. And since every desire could be fed, they were free to create and savour new pleasures and to live however they wanted and to do whatever they pleased.
All the prosperous people of the palace shared three things in common:
First, they listened all the time to the wizards who could conjure up new pleasures. Although no one was forced to do what the wizards suggested, no one living in the palace was able to resist their charm or question the source of their magic. Yet no one ever complained about this since they liked listening to the wizards and imagining what pleasures they would conjure up next.
Second, the prosperous people of the palace rarely thought about the world outside the palace. In fact, many believed that the palace was the whole world, and so the only thing that mattered was what happened among the people in the palace. Few could remember what their world was like before the palace was built, except that it was backwards, brutal, and unfair.
Finally, despite having everything their hearts desired, almost no one was really happy. And everybody argued all the time. Just about everyone believed there was something slightly off about the palace, even if many couldn’t put their finger on it.
“This place is going to the dogs,” shouted the strongest supporters of the wizards.
“We need to be better about giving everyone equal access to their magic,” yelled the wizards’ strongest critics.
And so the prosperous people of the palace devoted their lives to pursuing their desires and arguing with each other about how to make the palace a better place or a more desirable place or, actually, a place that was much more like how each person thought it should be. Many of these ideas were fair and just in their intention, while others were merely selfish, unrealistic, or mean-spirited. Yet everyone, no matter their views, cared deeply for the palace, even if they didn’t know or much care for their neighbours.
All the top people in the palace worked with the wizards to govern and improve the palace. What they valued above all was that no one should ever question the palace itself or the magic that sustained it. The welfare of the palace depended totally on people always desiring and using the magic conjured by the wizards. Even the prosperous priests in the palace devoted their lives to helping people with their desires, finding meaning within the palace, and making the palace better and bigger. Like everyone else, the top people and priests always listened to the wizards and always argued, often (it seemed) for the sake of arguing.
Outside the palace, things were very different.
The exterior of the palace itself was ugly. Where inside it was shiny and bright, on the outside it was dark and ominous and ugly. When viewed from afar it appeared shapeless and no more solid than a dank mist. It’s outer precincts were filled with rubbish, pools of poison, and air no one could breath. And it had grown so large that hardly any of the kingdom itself lay outside it. It had swallowed all the old towns and villages, the old buildings and churches, and covered all the old fields and forests and rivers.
In what was left of the kingdom outside the palace lived a great multitude of people far more numerous than those who lived inside. They weren’t pretty or prosperous like those in the palace. They were too busy to think about their own desires and too burdened by life to think even about themselves. Crowded together, they survived on a little bit of food and the meagre hope that maybe one day they would be allowed to live in the palace.
These people mined the life of the land: the source of the wizard’s magic. It could be used by the wizards to conjure almost anything, but when it was taken from the earth it left behind corruption and death. Without the life force, the land withered and dried up like a leaf in winter. So that all the good things the prosperous people of the palace enjoyed and took for granted depended on sucking the kingdom dry of its life. The larger the palace became the more the land decayed.
With each passing year, the palace grew darker and darker. People began to notice that pieces of masonry were flaking off. Cracks started appearing, letting in noxious air. All the while, the arguments grew louder and more violent as the people began to fear for the future. And so, the wizards worked harder and harder to distract the prosperous people from looking outside the palace or wondering about the source of their magic. The top people suggested new ways of ensuring that the wizards’ magic would never stop, and the priests offered to help people feel less anxious about the cracks in the wall. All played along because everyone knew that if wizards’ spell was broken, the palace would collapse and fall into ruin. So, the prosperous people of the palace turned their minds even more to their desires, sucking the life-force out of the land faster and faster.
Eventually, the life force of the land was exhausted. The people turned on the powerless wizards because they could no longer cast their spells. They shouted down the top people for colluding with the wizards and they spurned the priests for having little useful to offer. Finally, they turned on each other for wasting the wizards’ magic and leaving them with nothing but the withered dust of a dead land. The palace crumbled into ruin and all the pleasures of yesteryear were forgotten and even the most noble achievements of the people vanished.
As for the great multitude that had never enjoyed life in the palace, their bitterness grew boundless and their hatred for the fallen people of the palace fiercer.
If only the people of the palace had remembered that long, long before the first stone of the palace was laid, the life of the land was given as a gift. “Tend and keep the land wisely,” their first settlers had been told, “and the life of the land will blossom and flourish. This gift has been given so that all may be fruitful and share in the abundance of life. As it is with the land so is it with you: without the life of the land you are but dust and to dust you and all your achievements will return.”
But this promise and warning few had remembered and even fewer cherished. Such were the once prosperous people of the palace that they could never see that in order really to live they had first to love.
For their hearts had withered long before the life of the land had.
There are probably few words more overused than community. Almost anything can be categorized as a communities these days, especially if that opens the door to niche marketing or promoting self-interest.
Arguably the most dominant form of community today is the virtual or digital community: all the various ‘shared-interest’ groups brought to us via Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other social media platforms. They let us connect with people the world over who enjoy the same things we do.
I remember in the early days of the Internet how thrilling it was to chat regularly with people across the globe. It was amazing! One of the first I had was with people from Germany, England, and the newly formed Czech Republic about beer. I was still a student at William & Mary and the new possibilities of the Internet, coming as the world was changing following the collapse of the Soviet Union, seemed to betoken a bright new world.
As recently as 2015, a wide scale survey in the States demonstrated that while most people had some concerns about the impact of social media (especially parents), by and large people were upbeat about digital communities and the endless information the Internet provides.
I’m not so certain that optimism remains undiminished today. To the old concerns about the weakening of local communities and neighborhoods, we can now add growing concerns about privacy, the political impact of rumors and misinformation (‘fake news’), and awareness about how easy it is to live in social bubbles that block out ideas and people with whom we don’t agree. And as people like Joseph Turow have shown, a great deal of our online lives are really means for data miners to gather information about us and our interests to sell to marketers.
Just consider that for a moment. Human lives are now a resource to be mined for the profit of others…
I’m the father of an 18 year old, so I know well that many, if not most, young men and women are not bothered by much of this. I’ve heard many say something like,
As long as they’re provided me with things I like to do, I don’t care if they gather information about me. It only helps them to connect better with my interests.
And they have a point: a great deal of the rhetoric about privacy and surveillance can be overblown, suggesting that there are rooms full of people prying into every detail of our lives.
Let’s face it: most of us live lives that just aren’t that interesting.
But what kind of society is created when people rely on social media to form communities?
So, back to my original question: what is a community? A basis for Convivium is the conviction that healthy communities are real communities that don’t depend on technologies, that take account for the natural world, and that endure.
You might call these ’embodied’ communities because they require the use and presence of our actual, physical bodies: facial expressions, vocal cords, eyes, and all the other aspects of being in the actual, physical presence of others.
Only in that way can we learn to delight in people for whom they are rather than only for the interests and habits they share with us. Embodied communities don’t allow us to escape too easily from people we’d otherwise avoid, require us to engage with ideas we might find distasteful, but also allow us to encounter the kind of love and affection that can build us up. Ultimately, that’s the basis for conviviality and (to put it bluntly) maturity not least because they draw us out of ourselves.
What embodied communities do you belong to? And is there anything you can do to support and grow them? They probably need your help.
Given that one of the implicit aims of Convivium is to challenge consumer culture, there’s a certain irony that I should find myself spending hours putting together a ‘launch’ video. What’s more emblematic of our culture than a promotional video designed to grab people’s attention and attract them to whatever’s being marketed? I’ve faced similar problems with my books, two of which directly critique the role of mass marketing in our culture, which has then made it difficult for me to promote my books without becoming part of the very thing I challenge.
Fortunately, I’ve made my peace with hypocrisy–one can’t long be a preacher without doing so.
But, in a way, my dilemma points to the dilemma everyone living in the developed world faces: we can’t help but participate in the system, elements of which almost everyone laments. We mourn the closing of local restaurants and pubs even while we sit in front of the TV eating our dinners or we worry about Climate Change as we sit comfortably sheltered from the elements or we burn gasoline driving to the trail head where we’ll begin a long hike. And so on…
The many ways we’re compromised shouldn’t drive us to despair. It has been ever thus with people who have wanted to change how the world works. In Christianity, we call that living in a sinful world, which is just an old fashioned way of saying that everyone is neck deep in muck. None of us can, therefore, behave self-righteously.
That recognition is one of the key requirements for conviviality as no one likes to share a meal with a jerk.
If you’ve not watched it yet, please do take a look at the launch video. We hope to produce more in the coming months both to whet your appetite about all the events we have planned but also to flesh out in more detail our over all vision and the principles on which it’s based.
The blog will give us a chance to share information, invite other writers to offer their insights and experiences, and to get feedback from readers. These will be interspersed with my musings about life in a medieval Cathedral Close and my regular walks amidst the Brecon Beacons National Park with my wife, Sarah, and our two spaniels Cuthbert and Humphrey. That’ll give me a chance to indulge my love of landscape photography. So, please do check back often.
We hope that you’ll find this site useful and informative, but also inspiring. Let us know about any content you’d like to see or if you’d like to help with Convivium.
We hope to see you at one of our events. We’re very excited about the future…