The silent meal

From time to time I’ve participated in a silent retreat, an ancient religious practice of prolonged silence — five days is my personal record. Most often such retreats are in the company of others. You gather at some agreed place conducive to the practices of quiet and, according to an ancient routine of prayer, solitude and rest, nestle in for the duration.

There is much about this that I relish. My natural introversion makes the solitude of silence an appealing prospect. And, odd as it may seem, I’ve always found the renewal of silence an extraordinary thing. That said, there is an uncomfortable bit: eating. To sit at a table with others without the lubricant of speech is downright awkward: glances, smiles, nods, but no conversation. It takes some getting used to. What I’ve found, though, is that my concentration on the food takes on a new depth. Perhaps because staring at and poking around in the food in front of you is more comfortable than looking awkwardly at the person across the table, there is a presence to the food that is rare.

In his book Trumpet at Full Moon, W. Paul Jones suggests just such a practice, but more as an occasional, conscious choice in daily life than as part of some odd religious discipline.

‘Largely lost is the experience of eating as a delight. Most of us take our meals on the run, or in excess, or both. Even when a meal becomes more intentional, conversation tends to become the focus. As an exercise, set aside time for a silent meal, eating either by yourself or with others. Eat deliberately, bite by bite, sip by sip. Experience the difference between delight in eating anything, and this exercise of taking delight in the eating of each thing in particular. Let each food be what it is, uniquely so, and delight in it. Give yourself to the buttered corn, the cold milk, the yellow peach. Taste the breadiness of the bread, the mashiness of the potatoes. Be direct in experiencing the flavors, the crunch, the colors, the aromas, the tanginess — and the chewing, the swallowing, the sensation of sufficient fullness. Surround the whole event in the wrappings of thanksgiving.’

imagesW. Paul Jones, Trumpet at Full Moon: An Introduction to Christian Spirituality as Diverse Practice, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992, 130.

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