I was in China many years ago. All those on the trip were priests; the idea was to get us to China, see the sights, and then return to this country and organize tours. The tour package was a steal. The Chinese were eager to have us visit their country. We were their guests and were treated accordingly.
We were having breakfast one morning in a very nice hotel. The Chinese did their best to accommodate us, which included making Western style breakfasts including scrambled eggs, pancakes, bacon, orange juice and coffee.
Well, the food did not quite match its American counterpart. Those who prepared the food watched us eagerly, hoping that what they had cooked was good, was the real American thing. But it wasn’t. We took that in stride and smiled and ate. And the Chinese smiled and seemed happy that we were happy. It seemed important that everybody be happy.
But one priest was not happy. He said to those of us at his table that the eggs were too runny, the coffee too weak, the pancakes too soggy. With a snort, he said that he was going to share some real food with his friends, which meant that he was heading off to say Mass with his buddies. Off he went. The Chinese cook was not happy anymore.
China is a vast place. From what I saw on that trip, many people were struggling to get by. Every time the tour bus stopped, there were poor people at the door, waiting for it to open so that they could approach us and ask us for money or food. My sense was that China was then a very hungry place, unable to satisfy the gnawing hungers of its people.
Yet, they welcomed us, tried to make us feel at home, even to the point of serving us food that was foreign to their tastes but as close to American tastes as they could manage. The results were not always the best, but most of us took that in stride and were grateful for whatever food was served.
I think of that priest and his “harrumph” and hasty departure as he left the table to partake of what he called his “real” food, the Eucharist. It is a very small slice of life, but seems to me to be one that offers a lot of food for thought.
China is one vast place among so many other vast places. We live in an increasingly shrinking world; people who once lived in cultures very different from our own and very far away are now our neighbors. By way of an aside, many of them have restaurants which offer delicacies from all over the world. So we dine, are maybe happy to do so, and so are those who own and staff the restaurants.
The Eucharist summons us to dine and share the food and conversation at this one table we call life. The real food that is the Eucharist includes the entire menu, as well as the highs and lows in the conversations.
It includes the promise that we will all someday find happiness and the willingness to hang in there when the food and the companions fall short of our expectations as to what make for a fine cuisine and dazzling company.
We all know the experience of leaving the table in the hope of finding a better place to satisfy our hunger. But it is only at one table that we are able to learn what it means to feed each other, and suspend our more self-serving appetites.
There is no other dining hall other than the one that houses the appetite of God. For God has one hunger and that is for us to discover the happiness that lives in our relatedness as brothers and sisters.
Take and eat. The food may not be to your liking, but stay, and discover the delights of what real food really is.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.