Back in February, as part of the unit my friend Marcus and I teach on spirituality and food, I sent students off to tackle the mystifying task of ‘reading’ the local supermarket. Before they departed, reluctantly I think, we read a reflection from Terry Monagle’s book Fragments.
Sadly, Monagle has gone now. I never met him face to face, but still when I read him I feel connected. In fact, there are few writers of spirituality that touch me as deeply. A devout Catholic, Monagle lived locally and, if I am right, the Flemington supermarket he describes is one I know well. What follows is a slightly truncated version of the words we read in class:
We carry a red plastic wicker basket. We are bombarded by manufactured choice, by artificial and glamorising lights, by colourful labels, by ersatz music and by the smell of disinfectant. We get a plastic greeting as we pay with plastic.
They keep changing the aisles. Nothing’s where it used to be. We wander backwards and round and round looking for the familiar. Sometimes we feel lost. I can find the mouse traps, but not the cling wrap. The signs at the end of the aisles have disappeared too and been replaced by ones so high you have to strain your neck to scan them.
We really want the natural yeast of yoghurt; but along the way there are many distractions.
On our lonely pilgrimage of transformation we wander through the supermarket of life. We navigate the aisles of education, jobs, ideas, relationships, institutions, families, mortgages, bills, media, economies, politics, and spiritual options.
The tomatos are bred square so they can be stacked, they are bred with thick skins so they won’t bruise, and they are bred with wooden flesh so they wont rot. Maybe they are genetically engineered and impervious to herbicides. But am I?
We check for additives, preservatives, salt level, fat level, use-by dates, and place of manufacture. Can we find wholesome unprocessed food that will do us good?
There are people just off the train in their suits of black. All shopping for what they think they need. Their are toughies with their tats, and their check lumber-jack shirts, and there are the tall Somalians wafting through in their robes and lurid veils. My heart goes out to the young couple in the moccasins, the jeans, the basketball cap, the track suit pants, their pale blotchy cheeks and the infant in the pusher sucking its thumb; already doom in those eyes.
Despite these distractions we only need to get the milk. To get it we have to go deep into the store. We are being manipulated but we make our choices. We can choose to be plain bread, top of the range or to hunt relentlessly for specials.
Here we are anonymous; here rarely is there recognition, or human community, just humans choosing. Desire, choice and commerce.
In the spirituality market place there is plenty of product; the carnal intimacy of Rumi and the Sufis of Islam; the romantic whimsy of the Celtic Christian pagan hybrid; the intellectuality, the minimalism and the rationality of Buddhism; the mathemactical premutations of the Jewish Kabbalah; the Via Negativa of Dionysius the Areopagite and its presence in the introverted intensity of John of the Cross. Then there is the new spirituality, the movement in the west in the second half of the last century. It is individualised, syncretic, kleptomaniac but essentially it seeks immanence. It asks if God is in this supermarket?
I wander along the shelves, peering at lables, looking at use-by dates, checking for preservatives, and attempting a product review. Finally I take a product to the checkout.
Occasionally someone will drop something and another will reach to help or someone will step aside and let a mother and toddler go ahead. It is a mere flash, but at least there is something of a deeper dimension. It might keep us going.
When I go to choose my spirituality product, I know I must start with that pusher and that child.
And they are ahead of me in the 12-items-or-less queue. They are taking things out of the plastic bags, they can’t meet the bill. People are queued behind them, watching. My hand starts for my wallet. Hesitates. I have a choice.
Terry Monagle, Fragments: Moments of Intimacy, Mulgrave: John Garratt Publishing, 2003, chapter 1.