I am a Spiritual Materialist! Oxymoronic?
Eating in Restaurants and Finding God!
Since I was a mere stripling of fifteen or so, I have been delighted with Hilaire1 Belloc’s little ditty: Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine/ there’s dancing and laughter and good red wine/ at least I have always found it so/ Benedicamus Domino. My delight stems, I think, from my deep seated Catholic sense of the essential goodness of the material and its intended synthesis with the spiritual. I believe that both matter and spirit are basically good. My Scriptural background does clearly indicate that God looked upon what He had done and said “It is very good.” (Gen.1, 31). This certainly includes “matter”, that which we call the material.
Catholics believe that evil often surfaces, not from the material itself, but from the misuse and misdirection of “things” thus differing from the plan of the Creator. The dour, grim, unsmiling deviation which one sometimes finds in neurotic Catholics (and certainly in those other religions which doggedly chase witches, drunks and gamblers who smoke) is hardly within our real tradition. It is not alcohol, betting, sex or food, per se, which are intrinsically evil. It is the way we use them which causes departure from the Lord. Drunkenness, gluttony, avarice, lust, covetousness are all offenses before God, caused not by things but by the perverse will of the human being. However and obviously, there is a profound tendency in all of us to misuse the gifts of the earth.
In theological circles this tendency is called “Original sin.” An adult spiritual life, seeking healthy balance, contains and controls such a tendency. The Blessed Apostle Paul recommends a little wine for the sake of the stomach. We teach that Sexual love between a husband and wife is holy and righteously to be enjoyed. This is Incarnational Theology or the role of the physical in the Great Plan of God. Limited betting at the Racetrack, if it does no injustice to others, can be a legitimate form of recreation and appropriate enjoyment. Eating while essential for the survival of the human being, can be a source of exquisite pleasure, enjoyment and, I argue, holiness.
With such a Catholic/Belloc conscience and a healthy stomach, I enjoy and relish (I hope appropriately), eating, especially at eventide, in restaurants of almost any stripe: Italian, Spanish, French, American, Portuguese, Chinese, Irish, Turkish, Moroccan, Mexican and others. Eating in restaurants for me usually is a fulfilling and delightful experience. To be with good friends whose conversation and company I enjoy while savoring fresh, well prepared food in a charming spot — pampered by waiters, preferably with European accents and manners — this suffuses me with a warm and expansive gratitude. Gratitude to Whom? That’s easy. To the Lord God Himself. Such eating brings me closer to God rather than the opposite.
When I am enjoying a pungent dish of escargots with good friends, I can easily overlook what otherwise might be a source of annoyance (or even uncharity) for me. The guys who eat with their baseball caps on or the screaming babies whose parents seem unconcerned, or the loudmouth who spouts ignorant slurs on my Church, are all “ignorable” in the flush of my God-given enjoyment. I think this applies even to the Hot Shot who wears his cap backwards with the peak scratching the nape of his neck! When a glass of red wine courses through my veins, when my friends and I publicly ask God’s blessing on our fun and companionship, when I eat good food, when I feel the excitement of open and spirited conversation, my being is drawn to the loving Father, Who is God, for providing such bounty to my life. Recently, at a charming Italian restaurant in New York’s Theatre district, I had a wonderful dinner with a Catholic family. We laughed and shouted and reached Cloud 9. We kidded with the waiters. We drank wine. We ate heartily. We all held hands in a circle and acknowledged Our Lord and Master to the surprise and, I suspect, the envy, of other diners. This was Community and the fusion of the spiritual and the material at its best! This was also the Catholicism of which Belloc writes.
It was the heretical Manicheans who saw Matter as intrinsically evil, not authentic Catholics. But how many good and intelligent persons have been seduced by this and similar errors! It was so with the great St. Augustine and the brilliant Rene Descartes with his Cartesian “split” between the spiritual and the material!! Both were misled to such a philosophic false extreme.
The Catholic Church has always, as a Church, respected the material. There are innumerable blessings of the “physical”. Note the blessings for crops, animals, automobiles, marriage beds, airplanes, corpses, and all appropriate2 material things. We have the blessing “Ad Omnia” — for Everything. I consider the great Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady to be a triumphant validation of the “material.” So holy was her body that it was not allowed by the Father to decompose. In fact, it is a Catholic belief that all dead bodies will rise again on the last day. How is that for esteeming the physical dimension of us!
The Catholic Church promotes the beautiful with unbelievably gorgeous Churches and Cathedrals, with music that lifts the soul, with paintings and sculpture, with poetry, and with liturgy which features incense, color and choreographed movement. All of it uses the physical, the material. While there have been the extremists certainly in other religions who despise matter and who lust to destroy religious art, we have had some misled Catholics who have ranted also in Christ’s own Church. We have this periodic rise of Catholic extremists who shout for “getting back to basics” while grimly missing the warmth and richness of Belloc’s Catholicism.
I remember an analogous reference to extremism by William Langland in his work Piers Plowman when he wrote of certain Jansenist nuns who “….are pure as angels but proud as devils…” Clearly, imbalance is always a danger in the spiritual and emotional life. Chastity is a jewel for loving God and, at the same time, highly congenial, not antithetical, to appropriate enjoyment in life.
I recall the wonderful book, “Keys of the Kingdom” by the Scottish physician author, A.J.Cronin. The central character, Fr. Andrew Chisolm, enthuses with his little nephew about the beautiful bounty of God in filling the lake with so many fishes for people to enjoy eating. It does appear that regardless of extreme vegetarian stances, it is the Will of the Great God that we should be delighted with Dover Sole, Red Snapper and Irish Salmon. Who would dare dispute with Jesus Who, as God, cooked fish for his followers obviously encouraging others to do likewise?
I certainly won’t but I fully intend to enthuse about my Lord. I will sing His praises and thank Him now and hopefully for all eternity. I will continue to link my pollo scarparliello with my Faith while I trumpet the Catholic insight about Matter. Viva Belloc and his notion of “wherever the Catholic sun doth shine.”
New York City. Aug. 20, 2006
- Sometimes he called himself “Hillary” after a great saint. I prefer for esthetic reasons to use Hilaire since the other resonates an unpleasant note relative to a political figure.
- I note that in the First World War the Pope refused to bless armaments which are clearly meant to destroy.
Father James Lloyd is a retired Roman Catholic priest. He blogs at frjameslloyd.blogspot.com