The Christian life involves contradiction. We often remark that we are in the world but not of the world. We are by nature both physical and spiritual beings. We are given a life to live on Earth but ultimately we hope for life in Heaven. We are walking contradictions and often it isn’t easy to understand how to balance it all.
“Countless physical things lift us up and help us to better recognize the things of God.”
In fact, the center of our Catholic faith is a contradiction. Jesus meets us in the Eucharist when spiritual becomes physical. The God of the universe is present in the breaking of the bread. We can barely imagine that God and bread come together, but they do.
Babette’s Feast, written by Isak Dinesen, plays with the difficult contradictions between the physical and the spiritual. The short story is set in a tiny Norwegian town in the home of elderly sisters, Martine and Philippa. The two are the daughters of a beloved Protestant clergyman, the Dean, who has passed away and left behind a suffering congregation. Members of the church are eager to remember conflict between one another. Dinesen writes that they bring darkness into the church as they gather to worship because they are so focused on their problems. The loss of their beloved leader has left the group heavy with bitterness rather than unity.
This is disappointing to Martine and Philippa who strive to uphold their father’s memory and honor his mission to live simply and serve those in need. They live according to a strict asceticism that leaves no room for romance or material extravagance. Their goal is to focus all energy on higher things, God and a Heavenly reward.
The sisters take in a French cook, Babette, who is on the run from Paris. Babette quickly settles into life with the sisters and the mysterious French cook serves Martine and Philippa, living simply and seldom speaking.
After 12 years Babette wins a French lottery. Her winnings, 10,000 francs, shock Martine and Philippa. A sum of 10,000 is unimaginable in a town that places little value on material gain. Martine and Phillipa fear Babette will use her new wealth to return to Paris. Instead, she comes humbly to the sisters seeking permission to prepare a celebration dinner in memory of the Dean. Mostly out of confusion the sisters oblige. Soon wheelbarrows of exotic foods and wines begin arriving at the house. Babette is preparing not just a fancy meal, but a feast. In this tiny Norwegian town of simple suppers and worn black dresses surely there couldn’t be room for feasting. But a feast is what Babette prepares and a feast turns out to be what feeds the bitter congregation who gather to honor the memory of their Dean.
Babette spends her precious fortune on a feast for a room of grumpy ascetics. As they consume gourmet dishes and fancy wine they begin to transform from an angry group to a lighter one. Mysteriously they become new. The group spends the evening in what is described as “glorious radiance,” and at the end tumble out into the snow, purified. One prominent guest, a General, exclaims, “Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together…Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.” Babette’s feast provides intimacy with the eternal.
As Babette led a group of Puritans to higher things by bringing them to a feast, Jesus brings us to higher things in the Eucharist. We often come to the Eucharistic table heavy, focused on ourselves and annoyed with our neighbors. Jesus’ divine presence in the bread and the wine makes us lighter, more willing to forgive, and joyful as we go on our way. The physical and spiritual unite to make us whole.
Like the Dean’s followers, when we are left alone we sink further and further into ourselves and sit deep in our own ways. As much as we try to transcend ourselves we need something more than our own prayer or attempts at righteousness to help us. We are physical and we require nourishment.
Martine and Philippa were eager to dismiss their physical nature and with that dismiss the ways our physical world can unite us with higher things. Countless physical things lift us up and help us to better recognize the higher things of God. We cannot dismiss that we are both material and eternal, in the world and hopeful for Heaven, breaking bread and meeting Christ.