This is the final talk from the Advent Triduum in Baltimore. It will be familiar to those who read this blog two years ago. This is a slightly revised version of the meditation I put up before beginning the long retreat in Australia in March 2011.
Given that last year I could not cough, sneeze or even move without a degree of chest wall pain a mere 17 days after heart surgery I am reveling in feeling well this year. There is much for which to be grateful. It will be a quiet Christmas in community with Mass and dinner. Too far and too risky to drive to PA. I hope to spend some time photographing the final decorations in the chapel and doing some reading.
Generosity and Gratitude: The Foundations of Eucharist
The Date: 11 April 1988
The Place: The Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
The Event: The 60th Annual Academy Awards
The Announcement: “And the winner for best foreign language film is: . . .
No film captures the scope of Eucharistic community, or the importance of generosity and gratitude in forging such a community, better than this exquisite Danish film. Though frequently referred to as a “food movie” it is not just that; it is not even primarily a movie about food. Babette’s Feast is a profound meditation on the theology of Eucharist, the theology of community and the theology of generosity and gratitude; none of which can be separated from the others.
The movie, based on a short story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), uses flashbacks to introduce the viewer to a small Christian sect in a remote part of Jutland. The congregation was founded by a widowed minister whose two daughters, Martina and Philippa, continue to care for a diminishing and increasingly argumentative group of believers in the years following his death.
Babette Hersant is a Catholic French woman who arrives at the sisters’ simple home during a driving rainstorm. She is carrying a letter of introduction from one Achille Papin who had figured in the life of one of the sister’s many years earlier. Babette is fleeing the French Revolution that had claimed the lives of her husband and son. After some initial hesitation the sisters respond to Babette’s desperate plea and agree to take her in as an unpaid cook and servant.
The eponymous feast takes place fourteen years after Babette’s arrival. It is occasioned by the minister’s centenary. While the two sisters are planning a simple celebration of a plain meal with coffee and pastry, Babette asks permission to cook, and pay for, a real French dinner. Once again hesitating, they give in only after a heartfelt plea by Babette. The preparations begin. For anyone who cooks it is wonderful to watch this “food part” of the film.
Initially there is gentle humor in watching the consternation of the two unsophisticated spinsters as Babette—with much help—brings the ingredients for the meal from the boat that transported them from France. A dozen live quail, a huge drooling turtle, cases of wine. It is quite a procession. But, the sisters become alarmed—indeed they become pathologically anxious, complete with nightmares—about what they are beginning to fear will be a witch’s sabbath.
As a result of their escalating panic one of the sisters approaches the flock to share her fears. They agree that they will partake of the meal but, “It will be as if we never had a sense of taste.” Furthermore, they will not discuss the food or anything else about the meal. The previously fractious community, perceiving an ungodly threat by outside and sinister forces, begins to lay aside petty grudges, long-nourished slights, and perceived hurts in a united response, a response that could only come about because of their gratitude to the two sisters and to Babette who has served their community for so many years.
At the last moment the number of dinner guests increases by one with the announcement that General Lorens Lowenhielm, who years earlier figured in the life of the other sister, will accompany his elderly aunt. He is unaware of the secret pact not to discuss the food.
The courses, presented one after another, are placed on a table set with dazzling linens, white china, sparkling crystal, gleaming flatware, and a profusion of candles. Amontillado sherry, champagne, and multiple wines complement each course. The congregation’s conspiratorial indifference to what they are eating serves as a comic counterpoint to the General’s increasingly ecstatic responses to the food and drink. But, the congregation does not remain indifferent. Because of their “vow of silence” in regards to the meal they are forced to move beyond the superficialities of sensual experience and the self-absorption that such a gastronomic experience causes.
Unable to discuss the food their talk moves to deeper spiritual realities that, over the course of the evening, renew and restore the community. Though stilted at first conversation begins to drift to recollections of the minister and the effect his preaching had on their lives and community. As they speak they examine and reconsider the harshness they had been showing to each other in the soft light of this banquet of thanks, a true Eucharistic banquet. Bitter words and scowls are replaced by apologies and unfurrowed brows. When the reconciled community departs they join hands and slowly dance around a stone fountain singing a simple song:
“The clock strikes and time goes by.
Eternity is nigh
Let us use this time to try
To serve the Lord with heart and mind.
So that our true home we shall find.”
All of the guests depart except for Christof, a hard-of-hearing elderly male who appears to be in the early stages of dementia. He stands in front of the fountain, raises his hands to the night sky and says: Hallelujah. Then he too departs.
There is more. The film ends with one final scene in the simple house between the two sisters and Babette. I will leave that deeply moving encounter for you to watch. In this final scene the generosity of the sisters towards Babette and her response to them show gratitude and generosity at their most profound.
If one were to ask the average individual in the street to define generosity, most responses would include a reference to money: Salvation Army Red Kettle Drives, university alumni appeals, or tossing a twenty into a cup on the street. Yet, this form of generosity may be the complete antithesis of true generosity. It may be a means of avoiding true generosity. Tossing a twenty or writing a check is easy. Generosity is not. True generosity involves giving not only of one’s treasure but one’s time and talent. True generosity is undergirded by love for the other who receives that gift.
In response to the generosity of those who sheltered her in a time of need, Babette gave everything when she prepared the feast. Her time. Her talent. Her treasure. And, as becomes clear in the final scene, the rest of her life. Martina, Philippa and Babette understood St. Ignatius’ prayer for generosity down to the marrow. The community learned it by their example.
O Lord, teach me to be generous,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds
to toil and not to seek for rest
to labor and not to ask for reward
Save that of knowing I do Your holy will.
The great French Biblical scholar Xavier Leon-Dufour writes that in common Greek usage “eucharist means the gratitude which is the source of thanksgiving.” If true generosity is difficult for us true gratitude is almost impossible. The difficulty is not in expressing our gratitude for the other’s generosity. We are generally very good at that. The challenge is accepting the gratitude of those to whom we have been generous. We see ourselves in Martina and Philippa who lived to serve; but who were wholly unacquainted with being served. Being served can be more humbling than serving others.
How often do we deflect, denigrate, or outright reject the gratitude of others? The simple words “you’re welcome” have been replaced by the flippant and cynical “Sure.” The faux-magnanimous “No. Thank yooooooooou.” And the stunningly inarticulate “Mmm hm” or “Uhhh huh.” Only when we are willing and able to accept the generosity and gratitude of others without embarrassment or equivocation will we be able to accept and respond to God’s overwhelmingly generous gift of Himself in the Eucharist of bread and wine and in the Eucharist of community.
At the close of this series of Advent reflections we are called to remember Mary’s fiat. We are called to imitate Joseph’s silent assent. We rejoice in God’s gift of His only Son who was born to redeem us from sin, and we can only respond to that generosity with the gratitude of the Eucharist.
The photos are all black and white. The colors of the lights are distracting at times. In addition, because of the grayish white walls in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit and a few unfortunate lighting choices, it is difficult to get a decent balance of color.
The first is the Ignatius Altar that appeared in a earlier posting in this series with the colored lights. The second is straight down the arches on the side.
The chandeliers in front of the second floor loft with the garland and (faux) candles.
The organ at the church in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. It has already resounded with the message of Christ's birth as we are just waking up to Christmas Eve morning.
The final photo is the Church of St. Aloysius in Sevenhill, South Australia, taken during the long retreat.
The best statement of the true meaning of Christmas comes from Dag Hammarskjold, late Secretary General of the UN, in a haiku found in his diary Markings.
On Christmas Eve
Good Friday was foretold them
In a trumpet fanfare
The manger in Bethlehem was overshadowed by the shadow of the cross on Calvary. That has not changed. We can never afford to forget it.
May you have a Blessed Christmas and Joyful New Year.
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD