Around the kitchen table


10 Dec 2019

To sit around the kitchen or dining room table and share a meal, is to share yourself – to open up to companionship.

One of the most important pieces of furniture in any household or community is the kitchen or dining room table. 

Sadly, they have lost their allure in many places these days. Even if people sometimes make it to a table for a meal together, their mobile phones intrude and companionship suffers. 

Is it not time to check our guns and mobiles at the front door and return to the idea that the kitchen or dining room table is a sacred space?

 Share a meal

The word ‘companion’ comes from two Latin words – cum meaning ‘with’ and panis meaning ‘bread’. A companion in the fullest sense of the word is one who breaks bread, shares a meal, with another. To share food with a person is to share life with them. For us Christians, the Eucharist is the most sublime celebration of companionship with Jesus and with one another. 

Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, once wrote in Becoming the Beloved: ‘I very much like the expression “breaking bread together”, because there the breaking and the giving are so clearly one. When we eat together we are vulnerable to one another. Around the table we can’t wear weapons of any sort. Eating from the same bread and drinking from the same cup call us to live in unity and peace.’

This is not unlike what Joan Chittister says in Listen with the Heart: ‘The dinner table is the centre for the teaching and practising not just of table manners but of conversation, consideration, tolerance, family feeling, and just about all the other accomplishments of polite society except the minuet.’ 

Theological insights

In Brisbane I shared a flat with dear friend, Peter Bernard Quin, the parish priest of Toowong.  One morning at the breakfast table I found myself tucked behind my cereal and exchanging theological insights with Peter, who was carefully dissecting the latest editorial on heroes entitled ‘Shining Stars’ in an edition of this magazine. He was energetically agreeing with the following words: 

‘There are traditional heroes like Weary Dunlop, but there are also legends, icons, role models, untouchables, cult figures, celebrities, and people like Elizabeth Taylor who are famous for just being famous. Nor can one omit our fallen heroes, and our unlikely heroes like film star ‘Kenny’, whose director described him as “the Dalai Lama of waste management, eternally optimistic and always ready to put others before himself.” Though his language might be somewhat earthy, Kenny’s values are heroic.

‘Les Carlyon is absolutely right when he says that what makes people special, what makes them heroes or stars for us, “comes from within.” In a memorable conclusion to his article he writes: “True heroes are invasive: they get past our minds and wriggle into our hearts.” 

‘It is an interesting exercise to reflect on and name those people who are “invasive” in our lives and “wriggle into our hearts.” There are writers such as Joan Chittister, Ronald Rolheiser, Timothy Radcliffe and Caroline Jones, because their words have been to me “precious cups of meaning” (St Augustine); Pope John 23, because of his courage, in the face of so much incredulous opposition in high quarters, to allow the Holy Spirit to blow much-needed fresh wind into the Church’s sails in the early 1960s. Let the winds keep blowing and let us heed not the voices of those who wish to becalm the work of Vatican II.’

Splendid conversations

Later I lived in the Jesuit presbytery at Lavender Bay, Sydney. There, the kitchen table was central to our companionship and lit up with the likes of Richard Leonard, the doyen of global church renewal presenters; Phil Crotty, who brought to the table all his 50 years of wisdom and experience on the Indian mission; parish priest and poet Andy Bullen with his exquisite linguistic gifts; and the tireless pastoral work of Daven Day and Michael Stoney whose contact with a diverse range of people threaded its way through many splendid conversations.

The table is about companionship. I can remember a young aspirant for the Society telling me that he viewed prayer as ‘keeping God company.’ We are always in God’s company, of course, but taking some time each day at the table will enliven both our prayer and our companionship. 

A learned Jesuit wrote once that his prayer had gone through four stages throughout his lifetime. First, he had talked at God. Then he graduated to a stage of talking to God. From there he made the transition to listening to God, until he finally progressed to listening for God. 

Listening for God is like ‘keeping God company.’ May we continue to keep and enjoy God’s company at the table – be it at the Eucharist, or in the dining room or kitchen. 

‘The Kitchen Table’

To conclude, I was reminded of that intergenerational verse, The Kitchen Table, part of which reads:

Remember how once we would sit down as one,
And Dad would say grace when the carving was done.
Our own serviettes from our own special rings,
And we all knew our manners and etiquette things.
Then our elders would tell us of custom and fable,
When we all sat about at our kitchen table.
Now they’re building new mansions with four-car garages.
Our working lives mortgaged to interest and charges.
There’s less time at home for the tea to be made,
And it’s seldom today that a table is laid.
There’s room after room under gable and gable,
But there’s not enough room for a kitchen table.

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