Food, Glorious Food
Some of us may have read Charles Dicken’s novel “Oliver Twist.” Many more have probably seen the musical “Oliver,” based on the 1838 novel which narrates the life of orphans in Victorian England. Nine-year old Oliver, a victim of slow starvation, living on three small bowls of oatmeal gruel every day, dreams of better food.
At the start of the musical, Oliver and his fellow orphans sing “food, glorious food” in the hopes of getting a good meal. Bowl in outstretched hand Oliver dares to say the now famous line, “Please, sir, I want some more.” That results in him being thrown out of the workhouse to fend for himself in London’s underworld of theft and violence.
Today, the United Nations food agencies estimate that around 690 million people around the world go to bed hungry every night. The pandemic has made the situation worse. People have lined up for hours to get food from Food Banks to feed their families.
Recently, in an attempt to de-clutter, I came across a newspaper clipping from the Evening News of India, Monday, May 31, 1971. The article talks about five of us, who volunteered in the slums of Mumbai every Sunday morning “to better the living conditions of the shanty town dwellers.”
I can recall faces lighting up as we walked into this predominantly Muslim area with a sprinkling of Hindus, Christians, Jews, and Sikhs. We gave them clothes, household equipment, textbooks, and of course, grains like rice and wheat. Offering a listening ear and food, were gifts to their very hungry hearts and stomachs.
It is true that people are starving for food, but so many are hungry for love. This is a poignant fact in “Oliver,” especially when this lost orphan sings the plaintive melody, “Where is love?”
He asks wistfully, “Does it fall from skies above? Is it underneath the willow tree that I’ve been dreaming of?” Eventually he does find love with his grandfather who was searching for him. His heart and his belly are now fully satisfied.
It is an unpleasant experience to go without food for an extended period of time. Without proper nourishment we slowly become weaker and feel drained. Our life seems to be ebbing away, and in a way that is true. Just as food and drink are vital to our well being, more so is receiving the Eucharist. Jesus said, “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:55)”
The Eucharist is so life giving, as is evident in He Leadeth Me a book written by Fr. Walter Ciszek a prisoner in a Siberian labor camp. He risked saying Mass every day. He said, “I would go to any length, suffer any inconvenience, run any risk to make the bread of life available to these men.” Receiving the Eucharist under difficult circumstances made it even more meaningful to these exhausted men who worked long hours in the cold. Fr. Ciszek was “occasionally overcome with emotion…as I thought of how [God] had found a way to follow and to feed these lost and straying sheep in this most desolate land.”
Another example par excellence of Eucharistic love is the late Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, who spent 13 years in a Communist prison, 9 of which were in solitary confinement. On the pretext of having stomach pains, he was sent medicine, which was actually a small bottle of Mass wine. With that, and a few broken hosts, he made the impossible possible. He said, “I will never be able to express the joy that was mine: each day with three drops of wine, a drop of water in the palm of my hand I celebrated Mass…. At 9:30 every evening when lights out rang everyone had to be lying down. I bent over my wooden board and celebrated Mass, by heart of course, and distributed Communion to my neighbours under their mosquito nets.”
Then there was Gandhi, who was wise to admit, “There are so many hungry people in the world, that God could only come into the world in the form of food.” Jesus teaches us with his Word, but feeds us with the Eucharist, his body.
Richard Rohr clearly states that “the Eucharist is telling us that God is the food, and all we have to do is provide the hunger. Somehow, we have to make sure that each day we are hungry, that there’s room inside of us for another presence…our only ticket or prerequisite for coming to Eucharist is hunger. And more often sinners are much more hungry than the ‘saints.”
In my travels around the world, I have sampled a variety of good food, but I yearn for the Eucharist, the bread of life. Jesus promises, “If you eat this bread you will live forever.” (John 6:51). I have come to the conclusion that if I learn to live in what Thomas Merton called the True Self, then I become what I eat, and can honestly echo what Paul said, “I live no longer; not I, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) The Eucharist, God’s glorious food, is slowly changing me.