Eating and Breathing Sacramentally

Throughout this series on sacramentalism, I have suggested that the sacramental imagination involves learning to perceive the world according to its real shape or essence. It is a way of picturing things that is faithful to the reality we experience living in a world where grace transforms nature. This goes back to Chesterton’s insight that there is a divine splendor that lies concealed in the stuff of ordinary life, and that even the mundane and commonplace participate in God’s grace.

That may sound somewhat mystical and over-spiritualized, so let’s make things very practical. How can the sacramental imagination change our perception of ordinary things like a sandwich, bedtime, mealtime, family relationships and suffering? To answer this question, let’s take each of these things one at a time, beginning with sandwiches. This will anticipate some of the more specific points I will make later in this post about eating.

The twentieth-century catholic author, Andre Dubus (1936-1999) reflected that if someone makes a sandwich for you out of love, then the sandwich not only contains physical properties like nutrients, but it also contains spiritual properties, since God’s love is in the sandwich. This is even the case if the sandwich is made with tired or impatient love. Reflecting on Dubus’s beautiful image, Andrew M. Greeley remarked that, “The sandwich becomes enchanted because it is permeated by, dense in, awash with the two loves—human and divine.”

If a sandwich can become suffused with grace even when it is made with tired and impatient human love, then how much more is this true of the world and our experiences within it, which come to us out of the overflow of divine love. Not only has God’s love constructed the natural beauties we enjoy, from mountain streams to alpine flowers, but His love has crafted the unique set of circumstances and challenges that make up the conditions of each particular life.

The sacramental imagination invites us to begin viewing all activities and conditions in a spiritual light. However, by “spiritual” I do not mean separate from the natural world of familiar objects. The whole point of a sacrament is that the spiritual has invaded and transformed the ordinary. Some more specific examples may be helpful.

Consider the example of sleep. Sleeping is a process we might be tempted to call “secular”, in contrast to “spiritual” activities like going to church or reading the Bible. Yet Psalm 127:2 tells us that God grants sleep to His beloved and Psalm 3:5-6 tells us that God is the one sustaining us when we lie down and wake up. What would our nights be like if we really believed that?

Or consider family relationships. Whenever a member of your family or church asks you for help, it is actually Christ you are helping (Mt. 25: 35-40), as surely as Simon of Cyrene helped Christ by carrying His cross (Lk. 23:26). What would our relationships be like if we truly believed this? We often fail to notice Christ’s presence because He comes to us disguised in our commonplace relationships, including relationships that may irritate and annoy us.

What about something as basic as breathing? Scripture is clear that our breath comes from God (Is. 42:5) and that every breath we take can be an opportunity for mindful awareness of God’s presence within. What would our breathing be like if we truly believed that?

To these examples we might add numerous others. The point is that when we begin viewing the world sacramentally, we start to recognize that ordinary things are enchanted with God’s presence. By “imagining” the world sacramentally, we are actually seeing it according to its real shape.

God’s sacramental presence in ordinary things is not contingent on our ability to impose a Christian interpretation on them from the outside (for example, remembering to thank God for all good things or seeing natural realities as evidence of design, as important as this is). Nor is God’s presence in ordinary things merely instrumental, as merely a material sign to a spiritual reality, though it certainly includes that. Rather, the sacramental vision recognizes that the presence of the Logos has been breathed into the very structure of the world and the nature of the things within it. When we learn to recognize the world in this way—in the correct way—then we begin to see even mundane things as occasions of wonder, beauty, grace and love.

I have a grandson who was born earlier this year, and it has been a blessing to watch him gradually become awake to the world. His first awareness of the world—even before being aware that he was aware—was the abiding presence of his parents’ care. All of his experiences—even his own choices and mistakes—have been awash in his parents’ love. The sacramental vision is simply an invitation to begin viewing our lives like that little child—seeing everything we experience as charged with the presence of God’s love for us.

Let’s explore more closely how this sacramental approach can transform our approach to eating.

As Christians we thank the Lord before eating every meal as a tangible way of recognizing that the food we receive comes from God’s hand (Psalm 136:25). This sense of food as gift was easier to grasp in days gone by when men and women had a more direct connection with the earth. But even though the food produced by the earth is now mediated through a chain of cause and effects far removed from our direct experience, we still remember to thank the Lord before each meal, thus acknowledging that food comes to us as an overflow of divine love. Yet often our sense of food-as-gift ends once we begin actually eating.

How would our eating habits be different if after saying grace we retained the sense of food-as-gift throughout the entire meal? What would it be like to eat with the type of sacramental vision that sees natural things like food—including food that may appear plain and boring—as awash with God’s love and charged with His presence?

To answer this question we only need turn to how we normally respond when receiving a gift. When we receive something as a gift, the natural reaction is to slow down and make ourselves fully present, to become “mindful” (i.e., paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.) For example, if my daughter is showing me a picture she drew for me, or my son is playing me a piece he composed on the piano, I want to give it my full attention, savoring every detail, making myself fully present without judgment. To be fully present with the activity of eating is no different: we want to eat slowly, savoring every bite, becoming fully immersed in the present-moment experience of receiving this gift from God.

If you want, you can try this type of mindful eating right now. Get a raisin and then sit down comfortably at a table with the raisin in front of you.

Take a few deep breaths while looking at the raisin. Now reflect on the fact that God’s love is in the raisin, in the same way that Andre Dubus wrote about God’s love being in a sandwich made for you by a loved one.

Now do a little thought experiment. Ask yourself how you would approach this raisin if a friend had lovingly tended the vine that produced it for you and then traveled a long way to bring it to your table. That may be a thought experiment, but it gets us close to the truth of what is actually going on here since it is through the operations of God’s love (and the energies of that love via hundreds of hours of cause and effects) that this raisin has come to be on your table. God’s love is in the raisin.

If God’s love is in the raisin, then respond to it as a gift by offering back your full presence. Observe the raisin with as many senses as possible: the look and color of the raisin, the smell of it, the feel of its wrinkly skin to your gentle touch. Try not to judge or evaluate the raisin, just be present with it. Remember, God’s love is in the raisin.

While doing this, you may find yourself bombarded with thoughts of the past or future, or you may be distracted by other sites and sounds around you. If that happens, just let it all go and return your full attention to the raisin.

Next, gently touch the raisin with your tongue, noticing the flavor sensations that will immediately greet you, as well as the feel of the raisin to your tongue’s gentle touch. Spend as long as you need at this stage, just being present with the raisin God has provided.

When you feel ready, slowly lift the raisin to your mouth. Observe all the senses that become engaged with it: the salivation that starts as the raisin approaches your mouth, the feel of the raisin as it enters your mouth, the burst of different flavors when you bite into it (can you notice both tart and sweet?), the sound of the raisin as you begin chewing it, the changing texture of the raisin as your teeth disintegrate it into a myriad of pieces, the feel of the raisin as you swallow it, the feeling of satiation once it is fully consumed.

Now bring that same loving attention that you gave the raisin and focus it on your own breath. Remember, being able to breathe is also a gift from God. Breathe in and our deeply, with long exhales. Let all your senses become engaged with your breathing: the feel of the air as it enters, the feel of your diaphragm as it expands, the feel of your diaphragm as it contracts and the air is gentle exhaled from your system. As you do this, distracting thoughts will probably float into your brain just as when you were with the raisin. That is normal. Instead of fighting against these thoughts, or judging yourself for having them, simply view these thoughts as something outside yourself and gently draw your attention back to your breath. As you do this, you are communing with God even without consciously thinking about Him. Remember Schmemann’s words (from my earlier post) that “breathing can be communion with God.”

Keep breathing in and out deeply before continuing to read.

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The types of practices I’ve just had you do—first with the raisin and then with your breath—are exercises designed to help you fully engage with your present-moment experience. This is an invitation to withdraw your mind from thinking about yesterday or worrying about the future or being distracted by the hundreds of things going on around you, but instead simply to be present with the Lord and His gifts.

Throughout history Christian thinkers have emphasized the importance of this type of present moment engagement. For example, St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the Jesuit order, said, “Do what you are doing. Pay strict attention to the actions in the present moment.”

Remember, the sacramental vision sees natural things as participating in spiritual realities, so that activities as mundane as eating and breathing can become occasions for communing with God. (I explored this in more detail in my post ‘The Sacramental Imagination.’) This vision of the world invites us to begin receiving all of our experience with love and thus to be fully present with it..

Most people who begin practicing these activities are surprised how much joy they can experience just eating a raisin mindfully, or just breathing mindfully. The joy that arises from eating or breathing with total present-moment awareness is a joy you can have with any wholesome activity. All you have to do is to offer that activity the gift of your total presence.

After doing the raisin exercise, Kaitlyn wondered what it would be like to eat an entire meal with the same level of mindfulness. The next evening she decided to give it a try. Kaitlyn had been working all day and didn’t have time to fix a nice dinner. All she had was some left-over rice and a little oil. As Kaitlyn ate this simply meal, she focused on being present with each bite, chewing slowly to give herself time to notice the flavor the texture of the food and the satisfying feeling when the food was swallowed. After taking a mouth full, Kaitlyn put her hands in her lap until the bite was fully chewed, in order to give each bite her full attention instead of rushing to take the next bite.

“I thought that meal of rice would be boring,” she explained afterwards, “but I think it was the best meal of my entire life.”

Now food has taken on a new delight for Kaitlyn. She is also much healthier since her food digests better. Most importantly, however, eating has become an occasion for Kaitlyn to commune with God.

“Even though I’m not consciously thinking about God when I eat,” she explained, “the simple act of slowing down and being present with my food somehow helps me to feel close to God. He is present with me in each bite.”

This practice of total present-moment immersion is practiced by many monks and nuns who have devoted their entire lives to prayer. In the teachings of many monastics, one way to “pray without ceasing” is to pursue our work with an attitude of mindfulness. One of my favorite spiritual writers, Fr. Alexios Trader, lives as a monk at a monastery on Mount Athos, a mountainous peninsula in northeastern Greece. In a 2013 article titled, ‘Taking Captivity Captive: The Role of Mindfulness in Overcoming Mindless Compulsions’, Fr. Alexios shared that being mindfully present in seemingly mundane activities is a way to incorporate those activities into the life of prayer.

Perhaps it might prove helpful to practice mindfulness in those routine tasks such as driving to work or preparing dinner.  If our focus is grounded in the task at hand and we perform that task with an awareness that all we do we do for the glory of God, these tasks become part of our life of prayer. In the monastery, monks are assigned obediences or tasks that are often quite menial.  However, these are the perfect opportunity for the monk to focus all his attention on the task at hand, thus glorifying God in all that he does…. The same should be true for those living in the world.

Further Reading