Food and Spirituality

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Thus far, we have studied food science from an environmental perspective and food ethics from the standpoint of Healing Earth’s moral foundations and norms. One might expect that this knowledge would be enough to move us into action. For some people, it is enough because their inner spirit is already dedicated to the task of supporting healthy food and sustainable food systems. For other people, scientific and ethical knowledge has still not been enough to move them to act.

Closer Look

Click here to see a video about China’s Green Watershed Project. After a massive government dam project devastated their community, the Yi people of Yunnan Province learned new agricultural skills, mobilized their community spirit, and saved their cultures and their lives.

The transition from an unsustainable food system to a more sustainable system requires more than scientific and ethical knowledge. It requires that one have an inner spirit fervent about healthy food, food justice, and sustainable food systems, a spirit that rallies science and ethics to these ends. It requires that one have, consciously or unconsciously, a healthy food spirituality.

Throughout Healing Earth we have described environmental spirituality in three ways:

  • a person’s deepest beliefs about the meaning and value of the natural world;
  • a person’s experience of awe and wonder over the sacred beauty and intricacy of the natural world;
  • the ways people have, from time immemorial, understood and drawn on nature in the world’s religions.

With this in mind, we begin our brief exploration of food spirituality by returning to the questions posed at the end of this chapter’s opening case study: What spiritual meanings have human beings given to food? How does food sometimes evoke awe and convey a sacred quality? What are some of the rituals and beliefs about food found in the world's religions?

Food and Meaning

One of the most famous still life paintings in modern art is The Basket of Apples (1895) by Paul Cezanne.1

One can scarcely think of a substance to which human beings have attached more meaning than food. Our lives depend on it physiologically, psychologically, and spiritually. Physiology and psychology give us important empirical knowledge about what and how food nourishes bodies and minds. But neither of these fields gives us knowledge about what food means to us. That is knowledge of another sort, knowledge that resides in the human heart and spirit.

It is often artists who communicate the knowledge of food that comes from the human spirit. Why have still life paintings of food been such a popular art subject since the 19th century? Because the paintings somehow satisfy our hunger or remind us of a delicious picnic we once had in a park? Perhaps, in part. But artists also know that food takes our spirits into even deeper places than hunger and memory.

Food banquets are dynamic expressions of the human spirit that have fascinated artists for centuries. In Peasant Wedding Feast (1556), Peter Bruegel captures the action: jugs of wine being fllled, men carrying bowls of porridge on a tray made from an unhinged door, musicians playing music. To draw us even further into the action, Bruegel poses a question: where is the bridegroom?1

One of those places is human relationship. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle famously observed that human beings are social animals. As such, we use food not only as an object of nourishment, but also as a symbol of relationship. For example, we typically offer food to others as an act of friendship; we sometimes eat our host’s food even if we are not hungry or don't like it; we may even begin our group meals with a prayer. Each of these social gestures with food has less to do with physical nourishment and everything to do with the nourishment of our spirits and the relationships with those around us.

Closer Look

Research shows that regular family mealtimes help young people build more than healthy bodies, but also ‘internal assets’ of social competence and positive self-identity. You can read here the research article “Family Dinner Meal Frequency and Adolescent Development” from the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Our relations with others by no means exhausts the information that food symbolically communicates. For some people, the very act of preparing food gives expression to an inner artistry that no other activity achieves for them. In recent years, filmmakers have captured this spirit in characters such as Babette in Babette’s Feast (1987) and Primo in Big Night (1996).

Four hundred years after Bruegel, artists are still fascinated by the power of food to feed the relational hunger of the human spirit. In Barbecue (1960), Archibald Motley explores the potential of food for breaking down racial barriers. 1

Artists awaken us to the non-physical, yet real power food has in our lives. Sometimes this awakening can be a shock. Andy Warhol was well aware of traditional food still lifes and the rich sensibility these works communicate about the human relationship with food. In his art installation Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), Warhol presents a different kind of food still life. Here, a canned, commercialized food product is depicted in bland, repetitious monotony. Warhol invites us to ask: is this what food has come to mean in our industrialized food system? Is it even possible to know what a food spirituality might be in a world of soup cans?

Campbell's Soup Cans (1962) by Andy Warhol 1

Much more can be said about the meaning of food in our lives. The art, poetry, and music devoted to this subject is vast. Perhaps this brief exposure will spark an interest in you to pursue this fascinating subject further.

Questions to Consider

Find a poem, song, or painting that features food. What do you think the artist is trying to communicate to you about food? Can you sense what food means to this artist?

Food and Awe

Eastern Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann writes:

"Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. A meal is still a rite – the last ‘natural sacrament’ of family and friendship." 1

Inspired People

Food can sometimes produce a sense of awe or gratitude within us, what Schmemann calls a “reverence”. Imagine you have been living far from home. A friend senses your mood and prepares a special meal of foods you are familiar with from home. You are awed by this gesture, grateful to your friend and comforted by this 'unearned' surprise. The Christian word for an unearned blessing is 'grace'. Food has become in this example a medium of grace. Indeed, the word 'grace' is what many Christians call the prayer they say before every meal.

When food communicates grace, it takes on a sacred quality. The word ‘sacred’ refers to the quality of an object that makes it of such a supreme value that it cannot be measured by human standards. Again, artists are often the best communicators of this ‘sacred’ quality of food. In his poem The Onion, Pablo Neruda shows us how even a simple onion possesses awesome, sacred power.

Onion,
luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
happened
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency,
and as the remote sea
in lifting the breasts of Aphrodite
duplicating the magnolia,
so did the earth
make you,
onion
clear as a planet
and destined
to shine,
constant constellation,
round rose of water,
upon
the table
of the poor.

You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone

and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

In his painting Eucharistic Still Life, artist Salvador Dali puts three small fish, a sea urchin and a piece of bread on a heavenly-lit, golden-green tablecloth. Like Neruda, Dali is trying to awaken us to the awesome, sacred power in even the most common foods.

Eucharistic Still Life, Salvador Dali, 1952 1

Questions to Consider

If you were living far from your friends and family, what food dish or item would you most like to eat in order to make you 'feel at home'? What is special to you about this food? Is it all about the taste? Are there other reasons it is special to you?

Early Christian Painting of a Shared Meal, Catacomb of San Callisto, 3rd century. 1

Food and Ritual

The title of Dali’s painting refers to one of the most well-known ritual meals in the world’s religions: the Christian Eucharist (from the Greek eukharistos, meaning ‘grateful’). Here, bread and wine are consecrated and consumed by Christians in memory of Jesus Christ's 'last supper' with his apostles. This event is recounted in the Gospel of Mark 14:17-25:

During supper he took bread, and having said the blessing he broke it
and gave it to them, with the words:'Take this; this is my body.' Then
he took a cup, and having offered thanks to God he gave it to them;
and they all drank from it. And he said, 'this is my blood, the blood of
the Covenant, shed for Many. I tell you this: never again shall I
drink from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in
the kingdom of God.

Some scholars believe this ‘last supper’ was in the manner of a Seder, the centuries-old ritual meal of the Jewish community when it commemorates its Exodus from Egyptian slavery by the liberating power of Yahweh. During the meal, participants retell the Exodus story and eat foods symbolic of the 'Passover' from Egypt.

In this special Hindu ‘Chappan Bhog’ food offering, 56 varieties of food are cooked and offered to the deities. Participants then eat the prasada as an act of religious purification. 1

In Hinduism, food also plays an important role in worship. In Hindu temples, special foods called prasada are offered to the deities. Temple rituals are not complete until the prasadais distributed and consumed by the faithful. Eating prasadais believed to purify one’s body and mind. Read this fascinating description of how Hindus prepare and offer prasadafood.

Another ritual relationship with food that people in many of the world's religions practice is 'fasting'. A fast is a periodic reduction or removal of certain foods (or all food) from one's diet. The purpose of a fast is to direct a person's attention away from the body’s physical needs and toward the spiritual needs of the soul. These latter needs can include such things as meditation, personal prayer, works of charity, and almsgiving.

During Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims fast every day from dawn until sunset. While fasting, Muslims refrain from consuming food, drinking liquids, smoking, and engaging in sexual relations. For Muslims, the relationship between fasting and spiritual growth is described in the Qur'an 2 183-185:

O believers, fasting is enjoined on you
as it was on those before you,
so that you might become righteous.
Fast a (fixed) number of days,
but if someone is ill or is traveling
(he should complete) the number of days (he had missed);
and those who find it hard to fast
should expiate by feeding a poor person.
For the good they do with a little hardship is better for men.
And if you fast it is good for you, if you knew.

Ramadan is the month in which the Qur’an was revealed
as guidance to man and clear proof of the guidance,
and criterion (of falsehood and truth).
So when you see the new moon you should fast the whole month;
but a person who is ill or traveling
(and fails to do so) should fast on other days,
as God wishes ease and not hardship for you,
so that you complete the (fixed) number (of fasts),
and give glory to God
for the guidance, and be grateful.

For most Christians, fasting is practiced during the period of Lent. As with the Eucharistic meal, the Christian practice of fasting is rooted in the Biblical example of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew 4:1-2 begins the story of Jesus' fast by saying that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry.” Through food restriction, Jesus replicated the forty years his ancestors wandered in the wilderness after the Exodus.

Closer Look

Click here to watch a short video about Jewish Kosher laws.

A Jewish schochet ritually slaughtering a chicken. 1

In some religions, ritual attention to food consumption is not an occasional activity, but a daily practice. For Jews, kashrut (or, ‘kosher’) laws specify foods that are permitted or forbidden every day of one’s life. Kashrut laws apply to foods of every kind: animals, fruits, vegetables, cereals, and liquids. The laws also regulate how foods should be prepared for consumption. For certain mammals and birds, preparation requires the skill of a schochet, or ritual slaughterer. Because Jewish law prohibits causing unnecessary pain to animals, the schochet insures that animals die quickly when slaughtered.

Judaism is not the only religion with daily dietary laws. Muslims call their food regulations the halal. Muslim halal regulations are much like the Jewish kashrut laws, with the exception of alcohol, which halal does not permit.

Halal labels notify Muslims that the food item has been prepared according to Muslim law. 1

These are just a few of the many ways humans find meaning in food, experience awe over the sacred nature of food, and use food in their ritual practices. Together, these activities show how human beings have long attributed spiritual importance to food. If sustainable food systems are to replace unsustainable practices, a public reawakening to the spiritual dimension of food will have to be part of the development. When aligned with sound scientific and ethical knowledge, food spirituality can promote deeply committed action for healthy food and sustainable food systems. Examples of such action are given in the next section.

Questions to Consider

Select a world religion that you are not familiar with and research how food is understood in that religion. Ask the three questions we use in Healing Earth to explore food spirituality:

  • What meaning is given to food in this religion?
  • Does this religion consider food sacred?
  • Is food used in any of this religion’s rituals?
  • 1.

    Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Yonkers NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963), pp. 15-16.