When I first started thinking about spirituality and food, I was originally thinking about why so many of our rituals involve eating, and I was pretty sure it was mainly because it was convenient. After all, we eat regularly so why not use it as a time of prayer? As I pondered religious traditions like Christian communion (a ritual of eating bread and wine), Muslim iftar (the daily breaking of the fast during Ramadan), Sikh langar (the tradition of community meals, which are often an act of service as well), Jewish Shabbat meals or everyday family traditions of saying grace at meal times, I realized that it’s not just that meals are a convenient reminder to pray, eating serve as an important spiritual practice in and of itself. Over the years, as I’ve embraced a deeper spirituality of food (I would even call it a Rule of Life for eating) I’ve found this to be true. Shifting my idea of meals from a necessary evil–cooking, shopping, meal planning, budgeting, ugh–to a way that I could explore and deepen my relationship to the world and to the earth.
There’s a strong connection between food and spirituality, which is why many traditions include precepts on what and how to eat in daily life. In the Jewish faith, there are commands to keep kosher, for Muslims, it’s halal. Buddhist and Hindu traditions require that adherents “do no harm,” which leads many practitioners to become vegetarian. Christianity is actually an outlier in that it holds no guidelines for what it’s followers should eat, but this practice in and of itself was originally intended to be a spiritual practice; it made it easier for people of Jewish and Gentile backgrounds to share a meal together, something that was a common practice in the early development of Christianity.
For modern Americans, who have been steeped in a culture that embraces personal choice over all other values, rules about what we eat seem legalistic and overly prescriptive. However, many people actually experience faith-based food decisions to be deeply rewarding. As Miri Rotkovitz over at The Spruce says,
…keeping kosher is a detail-oriented endeavor and one that requires discipline. But the structure can promote mindfulness and heightened awareness about what, how, and where one eats. And for many, that mindfulness can promote appreciation, joy, and deeper spiritual insight.
Spiritually centered eating is important in a few ways:
- It shifts an ordinary, biological necessity of life to a spiritual practice. It’s integrated spirituality. So often, we only see ourselves as “spiritual” when we’re at church, or meditating, or hiking in nature. We hope that these small bursts of spirituality will be enough to carry us through the rest of life, which of course they’re not. Our ultimate journey is to be able to live spiritually day to day, not just in small bursts. Anytime we can make strides toward that, as when we embrace the spiritual aspects of seemingly non-spiritual parts of life, we’re better for it.
- It blends the physical with the spiritual, another important corrective. This might be particularly important for western Christianity, which has a history of disembodied spirituality. This is seen when we try to elevate the spiritual reality over the physical. It comes up in a number of ways but two prominent ones are when we expect people to “be spiritual enough” to rise above their physical circumstances including pain, illness or poverty or when we ignore the human need to experience Beauty. To be fair, this has thinking emerges from various traditions at various points in history. In the U.S., however, we’re still feeling the effects of the Puritan tradition which saw the body as a barrier to spirituality, not a means of deepening it.
- Spiritually based food choices also remind us of the interconnectedness of life. Many of the central principles of religious food rules are based on compassion. When we refrain from eating meat, or ensure our vegetables are fair-labor, or only eat humanely raised meat, we embrace our truest humanity. We choose to limit the power we have due to being at the top of the food chain in order to allow other creatures to have a good life.
Next week I’ll take a deeper look at a Hindu viewpoint for understanding the relationship between food and spirituality, which I recently discovered and found helpful for solidifying my thinking on this topic, then as we start Lent in the Christian tradition, I’ll do some thinking about rhythms of fasting and feasting in religious life. In the meantime, though, I’d love to hear what food-related spiritual practices you have (or don’t have!).