There’s something quite beautiful about dinner. This past year, there were two memorable dinners for me, that of my parents’ wedding anniversary, and the dinner I was treated to on my birthday. Both were at a restaurant in New York City that we frequent, called Gramercy Tavern. Those occasions were marked by fine food, wine and amazing service . . . just simply us. The service was exceptionally old-world, the cuisine was exquisite. We tasted purple carrots, fresh fish, pastas made in-house, and of course, their delectable roasted chicken, not to mention the peanut butter semifreddo. We were feasting on a veritable cornucopia of farmed food, and we enjoyed each other’s company immensely amidst such amazing creations course after course. How thankful we were for this moment to God, and for the artistry of such a fine restaurant and its chef.
Hearkening from my time in Rome, when as students, James (a writer on this blog) and I, on a limited income saved up our euros each week to share a bottle of vino nobile di montepulciano, and oftentimes I would cook papardelle con prosciutto, funghi, e panna. I miss those meals, my parpadelle was bought from a shop that specialized in it. The meal after Solemn High Mass would turn into afternoon tea, which would stretch itself til evening, and before we parted, we would often take a stroll down to visit the tomb of a saint.
One of our favourite paths took us along Via dei Coronari, past rows of antique shops, over the Ponte degli Angeli, finally ending with sunset at St. Peter’s square. I think we got too used to it, now we can only dream of it. On one cold Fall afternoon, I remembered those Sundays, as I was tasting Brunello di Montalcino looking out onto E 20th street in New York City.
Rome is not an easy city to live in, maneuvering one’s way around pickpockets, cramming into Bus 40 for a speed ride to Chiesa Nuova, and trying to take class and finish one’s errands before siesta was a feat of organization. An occasional bus strike could ruin an afternoon of productivity. Yet, the beauty of the Churches made it all worth the difficulties. I often tell friends of mine, that if it wasn’t for the difficulties, I wonder if we would have recognized the beauty at all! Bernini’s Santa Teresa in ecstasy, the sculpted tomb of St. Catherine of Siena, the frescoes in the Gesù were a veritable Sabbath Rest after the burden of life! We were feasting with the eyes on St. Philip Neri’s chapel in Chiesa Nuova decorated with mother-of-pearl. During years of living in the baroque one can’t help but see the delicate poetry of form and colour. At Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Bernini’s elephant balancing an Egyptian obelisk was just simply . . . pretty and adorable. It really does make you either laugh or smile when you see it….we saw it almost everyday. Such beauty was daily bread for our sight! Could our pragmatic world ever come up with a monument so fun and beautiful!
I must admit that in our churches, one finds rampant iconoclasm. Our modern churches are whitewashed, sermons that deal with psychology or mundane matters speak very little of grace or the divine. Chalices are made from cheap materials. I want not only to look up at heaven with my eyes, but my soul desires to be fed, to see the beauty to which God has called each one of us to be his sons and daughters, “nearest to the heart of the Father.” And at times, experiences of created beauty lead us to heavenly beauty. It’s a language. I want my eyes, ears and mind to partake of what I am supposed to believe through Faith, if as St. Paul says, “Faith comes by hearing.” I am not saying that psychology is bad, in fact, it is very necessary. I just want to make the point that if St. Athanasius says that “God became man, so that man might become God,” or if we truly believe that in the man Jesus, we see the face of God Incarnate, where is this portrayed, where is this preached?
And this is where I come to food. The cuisine at Gramercy Tavern, ever since I first set foot in its foyer, reminded me of the food my grandmother served at her house in the Philippines. It was about respecting creation at Lola’s. Everything was done with care, even to the mashed potatoes, or the timely boiled rice with a slice of pandan leaf amidst its grains. I remember her being so happy at fully ripened mangoes or papayas! It seemed she saw the beauty in everything. Instructions were given to the cook as to how dishes were to be meticulously prepared to respect the freshness of the ingredient; to boil the rice, the cook used a cast iron pot older than myself. My grandparents used to complain that rice was wasted if it was overcooked. They still ate it, but it ruined their day! Rice, as simple as can be, was considered beautiful. There was something divine about rice, my grandmother used to say, “Gracia ng Diyos iyan!”—That [rice] is God’s grace . . . it was the most basic tenet of the dining room. She used to say that salt and rice were the staples of daily living even for the poorest of the poor. Because of the poor, it was not to be wasted or ridiculed, because of their suffering which was like Christ’s, rice and salt were sacred. From early on, we were taught in analogies.
It is this same care and sacredness for food that I saw in one of Rome’s oldest convents, the Santa Lucia. One December 13th, this convent welcomed droves of pilgrims waiting their turn to venerate a sacred relic, the slipper of St. Lucy. Nun after nun ushered me into the parlor where I was greeted by a feast of the convent’s friends all partaking of a great feast.
It was the feast of St. Lucy, and we were satiated until it was dinner! Old Italian recipes were executed by the nuns: a simple sugo tasted joyous; the famed involtini, tiny rolls of veal stuffed with prosciutto and pancetta were braised in a marinara sauce; and for dessert, the famous biscotti of the convent cooked in its centuries old beehive oven! All tasted the exuberance of the feast, an image of the communion of saints . . . it hurt to return to the street amidst the chaos of modern Rome. The Holy Eucharist, festal relics, miraculous images, chants and hymns, involtini and biscotti, vino e pane, pasta con sugo found their place in different sections of a convent, under the same roof. The glory of the saint’s birth into heaven was being partaken of on earth. Lucia was the invisible matron of honour—who was invisibly present in the parlour, the kitchen and the chapel; and who beheld the beauty of God in heaven! The illuminative elegance of her grace and the natural tangibility of feasting were united on December 13.
From the sacred altar we visually contemplate in the Sacraments the Paschal Mystery, we received Our Lord in Communion—or rather, He receives us. What we taste as bread is in the Sacrament, changed into truly the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. It is at this reception of the Sacred Mystery that we find the highest communion and love. I contemplate Him in me; we are selflessly loved from within by His Presence. We cannot even describe how we love Him….visus, tactus, gustus in Te fallitur! Doesn’t the silence of the Eucharist announce to us how futile it is to describe His love: the beauty which we contemplate far transcends our senses. All moments of created beauty, all moments of feasting, all moments of dinner, now have true meaning in light of receiving Him in Holy Communion, when we receive Him as the Feast of all Feasts, as High Priest and Victim, as Bread of Life.
It is in light of the Eucharist that St. Cyprian of Carthage, and even St. Augustine, would interpret that famous phrase from the Our Father, “Give us this day our daily (in Greek, epiousion, meaning supersubstantial bread). This bread not only provides for my daily needs, but for the needs of my eternal life. I become what I consume, to become like God through grace. Yet, this Bread, given by the Father for our salvation, the Son is to us a gift from the Father (cf. John 3:16). The paradigms of salt and rice are mere shadows in comparison to the living bread which came down from heaven. Nevertheless, as analogies, sacredness of salt and rice pointed to something, a reality that we are all poor and that we are in need of this Sacred Bread from heaven. Panem quotidianum, daily bread, meant something much deeper than terrenal needs, we are all hungry for the bread of eternal life.
An exquisite meal of fine cuisine, to the fasted meals of Lent, to the fish curry at the Missionaries of Charity made with love (it really is the best fish curry I have ever tasted); all these analogies find fulfillment in the Mystical Supper of the Mass, where in solemnity, silence, the beauty of chant, and the preparedness of our hearts, we partake of the very life of God in the Holy Eucharist as food. It is here that we come to experience a beauty that is real, redolent, but ineffable, and “ever so ancient and so new.” A beauty so new that when things seem like we are in the pits, we see the hand of God through Faith—it is the same Son of God who is risen and Who is now present in the Sacrament of the Altar. We encounter His very Person. I don’t think it is easy to have Faith; however, if we can taste it, or at least an analogy of it in a meal enjoyed with friends, or even by oneself, even in silence, it makes the pilgrimage to heaven all that much easier and better understood, especially if we try to see where our feasting ought to lead. Who created the creation from which we compose dishes? Who has in the end, founded all these flavours which we fashion into delicacies. Do we not partake of the beauty of creation in the dining room, from flowers, to food, to the company of people whom we love? Who has given of Himself as the Bread of Life, from an altar do we receive, and we are satiated for everlasting life.
Grandmother’s dining room is now empty, Santa Lucia is across the ocean. But at Mass, I can taste God; even more profoundly, I can receive Him in the Eucharist—His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. This is He whom we hymn, “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest” Salvation from on high! He comes to us, is present before us, and is received by us in the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass. Sometimes we receive Him, and we have nothing to say, I don’t think this is a bad thing. What can we say at so beautiful a gift? In the Eucharist, we are confronted with a Communion of Love deeper than that of husband and wife, so deep that even a lonely single person can truly say that he or she is loved by God immensely, especially in the Eucharist. God giving Himself to us is the foundation for any type of communion of persons, of love amongst friends; we are shown what true love is, we experience it. We might not be able to describe Him in the Eucharist, but in some moments, when the dryness will fade, we can experience Him, and thus, know Him present within our souls—“enclose Yourself in me, so that I may be immersed in You, awaiting for the day when I can finally contemplate in Your Light, the Abyss of your Splendour.” ~Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity.
Pray to God for me.