Every so often I fall in love with a book. Just now I fell in love again, with Take this Bread by Sarah Miles.
Sarah Miles worked as a journalist and researcher in the Central American conflicts of the 80s. She also earned her spurs as a chef in hardscrabble restaurants, emerging with gourmet skills and a keen sensitivity to the human and spiritual significance of food and eating. Somehow, the radical child of an intellectual atheist household, she finds her way to a Christian calling and a life of community service, with cooking and sharing food as her guiding inspiration. This is Eat Pray Love for real.
It is a book about being in love, and also a cook’s tour of how certain kinds of experience can be written. It is a book about someone for whom, “half-way through her life’s journey,” feeling took over from intellect, soul from milieu, the internal from the external frame of reference. She could hardly have imagined setting foot in a church until one day she somehow wandered in, and found herself at the communion rail.
I walked in, took a chair, and tried not to catch anyone’s eye. There were windows looking out on a hillside covered in geraniums, and I could hear birds squabbling outside. [...]
I still can’t explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening—I was eating a piece of bread [...] and what I knew was happening—God, named “Christ” or “Jesus,” was real, and in my mouth–utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.
All the way home, shocked, I scrambled for explanations. Maybe I was hypersuggestible, and being surrounded by believers had been enough to push me, momentarily, into accepting their superstitions: What I’d felt was a sort of contact high. Probably my tears were just pent-up sadness, accumulated over a long, hard decade, and spilling out, unsurprisingly, because I was in a place where I could cry anonymously. Really, the whole thing, in fact, must have been about emotion: the music, the movement, and the light in the room had evoked feelings, much as if I’d been uplifted by a particularly glorious concert or seen a natural wonder.
Yet that impossible word, Jesus, lodged in me like a crumb.
A friend of mine says that she became a conscious, adult Christian while working as a Korean-speaking tourguide in Israel. Here is how it took place. One day, the stark landscape through which she moved every day with her groups of tourists suddenly entered into her, and she thought, wait a minute, it’s all real, then? All that really happened?
Where does this overpowering sense of reality come from? My friend didn’t encounter a physical Jesus, she didn’t touch a body or feel its wounds, nor was Sara Miles overcome by a mystic revelation. There was an experience of something real: in one case the bread, in the other a specific place. These became the kernel of something far greater than themselves, but somehow real in the same way. This is an overwhelming experience to those who have it; an entire world takes shape within them in an instant, a real world in place of the intellectual constructs they had tried so hard to inhabit. It is as though they are given their very lives: a great, singular gift with which nothing else in existence can be compared.
The reality of these moments is prospective. It predicts or promises something that must evolve over time.
Sara Miles waded into the life of her church community (St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill district) until she was serving in many capacities, including Deacon. She finds her place as organizer of a community food pantry serving the varied poor of their neighborhood. The church is naturally resistant to doing something this big and new, but she is well equipped by her experience in revolutionary politics. Distribution is set up in the sanctuary, around the beautifully sculpted wooden altar with its Greek inscription: “This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them” ( Luke 15:2).
And of course, the people come. The street in front of St. Gregory’s becomes a landscape of the city’s poor.
There were a lot of extended Latino families, with fussed-over chubby babies wrapped in pink acrylic blankets. There were black grandmothers from the projects nearby and a beautiful deaf woman with her three kids. There were homeless crackheads and street kids and a couple of schizophrenics; a bunch of old Moldavian ladies in head scarves; Russians with gold teeth; chain-smoking Chinese men in jackets. There was a hyper, skinny black man who danced compulsively to the music on his headphones, whirling around on the sidewalk shouting out “Love ya! Love ya!” over and over. There was a very sick prostitute and her faithful fiend, who’d sit on the steps sharing cigarettes. There was Phil, the speed freak; and Michael, the big scruffy British guy; and Nirmala, the radiantly calm Chilean woman—all three of whom would later become volunteers themselves. (127)
They come, and they eat. This is as real as it gets.
Miles quotes her Bishop, Bill Swing: “There’s a hunger beyond food that’s expressed in food [...] and that’s why feeding is always a kind of miracle. It speaks to a bigger desire” (175).