In this sample chapter from Simply Eat, former Hindu priest Rahil Patel shares what he believes the Western Church has forgotten about the importance of food and eating together!
Encountering Jesus Christ was a truly life-changing experience. My gradual realisation that this living and loving God was relational and not religious brought a deeper freedom than I had ever imagined possible. As a Hindu priest for twenty years, I had never known that God could be so close, personal and real.
I am thoroughly enjoying my walk with the Lord and the fellowship and love of new friends and ‘family’ that He has kindly built around me over the past six years. These are people I can trust and share with in an open and vulnerable way that I was never free to in my past life as a Hindu priest – indeed, I would never have dared to be so open with my fellow priests.
However, this doesn’t mean that I do not value my old friendships. Quite the contrary, I muse over them quite frequently, particularly when I eat alone – something that very seldom happened before I became a follower of Jesus. In fact, my most memorable moments of being a priest are the fun times we had with food within the setting of fellowship.
Sharing food – and lots of food at that – and quality time spent around the table with friends and colleagues as a Hindu priest was both the norm and incredibly fun, yet also a strangely deep spiritual experience. There was something profound and precious about this seemingly trivial activity. Shared meals were the unplanned classes that brought fresh life within the complexity of our disciplined spiritual search. We all knew this as priests and yet we wouldn’t have known how to articulate it if we were asked, because it was such an obvious and natural part of our spiritual journey together.
It wasn’t a ‘ritual’ on our list of religious ‘things to do’ and yet it had its own unique and special place. There was a consistent emphasis from senior priests for us to eat together, which coupled well with Eastern culture’s eating rhythms as a whole. In the years since I gave my life to Christ, amidst all the richness it has brought, this is the aspect of daily life that I miss the most. In fact, it is the only thing I miss about my previous life without Christ. Eating together regularly is a gaping hole that I see missing in general Western culture and the Western Church.
Fellowship and food were not something we talked about in my background. It wasn’t something we had to put in the diary as an ‘add on’ activity to do on a weekday here and there. Instead, it was central to life, deeply entwined within the fabric of our everyday busyness. No matter how time-tight we were – and we were very tight with time – food and fellowship were never compromised. They were held firmly at the centre of everything, with the rest of life revolving around them. Even when we fasted from food, we all fasted as one, knitting our spiritual journeys together.
During my training years in the Hindu monastery in India, we were taught repeatedly, ‘Your smart and intelligent sermons must never replace the importance of sitting with each other or members of the congregation amid an abundance of food.’ Sharing food, the giving and receiving of hospitality, were understood to be profound ways of connecting with one another and honouring one another. Letting a member of the Hindu congregation cook for you when you visited them and sampling all the dishes, sometimes dozens of them, was a way of incarnating any truth you might want to share with them in words. This practice is so reminiscent of how Jesus conducted His ministry. How much more, as those who know and follow Him, should we be practising this same kind of daily shared nourishment?
I did find it strange in my early years of being a Hindu priest how this food dynamic was emphasised again and again amid all of the other ‘spiritual’ tasks we had to perform. As I grew older and more observant, however, I saw the joy and satisfaction it brought, not just to the members of the congregation, but to me as well. It created a more mature sense of belonging and reassurance that all the other more ‘spiritual’ practices could not.
During our mealtimes in the Hindu monastery, we delighted in enjoying lavish feasts, with much celebration and laughter as we ate together. Now, this may sound very unspiritual to the religious mind, but I’ll dare to say the opposite. This type of party or feast was very spiritual, and had a profound impact which reached way beyond the stomach. There’s something very special about feasting, sitting amid abundance, and now, as a Christian, I can celebrate that any feast we have here is just a small foretaste of the great heavenly banquet that God will provide for us.
Living and growing up in an Asian family in London, I remember when my relatives would make a phone call to our home. It amuses me today to think how simple and uncomplicated the exchange actually was. ‘Are you home?’ ‘Yes,’ I would reply. ‘Fine. Tell your parents we are coming.’ Without any formal invite or ‘boundary-minding mindset’, a whole group of people would be in my home with plenty of food constantly filling the table. Again, whether it was relatives or friends, once you had entered a home you would never ask, ‘Can I grab an apple?’ or ‘Can I have some chevdo?’ (Bombay mix). That would be an insult to the host. The culture was to simply reach out and help yourself to whatever you wanted and eat away.
Recently, I had the chance to visit Baroda city in India to meet my lovely grandmother. Here I was taken back to my childhood with amusement. My relatives and I were camped around the television with a fine variety of food, lazily snacking away. Suddenly our neighbours began strolling in through the open front doors – uninvited, of course! – sat down between us, casually helped themselves to our food and joined in the chit-chat. I was blown away and equally fascinated with the natural process of it all. A childhood attitude suddenly resurfaced that it wasn’t ‘our’ food, but everyone’s; anyone who walked through the front door had equal access. It was such a simple reminder, yet I realised this principle was something I’d sadly forgotten since becoming a Christian. Returning home, I’ve been inspired to consider what we can learn from this way of living to reinvigorate the heart of how we do community as Christians.
You might be thinking at this stage that Eastern culture and the large network of family and friends can be intrusive at times. I couldn’t agree more. There is no concept of ‘healthy’ boundaries like we comfortably have in the West, and yet that very messy way of living out of each other’s homes is strangely fun and attractive. I’ll dare to say we are naturally drawn to it by design. It’s that very messy place where a deeper level of reassurance, purpose and belonging resides, when we love one another in the way Jesus taught us.
This way of living is so prevalent in the Bible. I love stories of the early Church but I have noticed that we rarely mention how the disciples ate together and did life together. They never faltered or failed in the doing of family. I have visited Israel and seen the settlements around Galilee, which suggest a very intimate way of living. These days, food and fellowship seem to have been downgraded, sadly losing their place at the very centre of life from where revival pours forth, but back then, they were the fabric of Christian community. It can be hard to understand that we are one spiritual body when we so rarely share the vital experience of feeding our physical bodies together.
Food was significant to the way Jesus fellowshipped and lived; however, these precious moments of interacting with people are usually converted into metaphors for sermons today. The simple fact that He took time and ate with His disciples is often sidelined because it seems too simple. Yet the fact that eating together was so effortless and normal in Jesus’ culture must not blind us to the power of the act. The disciples first belonged, being welcomed to share Christ’s life and table, and thereafter believed. Their theology of the incarnated God followed the reassurance that Jesus was a practical part of their everyday life.
One of the first things Jesus did after the resurrection was to cook breakfast for His disciples. The crucifixion, resurrection and second coming are pivotal truths to those of us who follow Jesus. But isn’t it fascinating that there’s a communal meal associated with each of these crucial moments of salvation? If we learned to eat together more, I believe we would rediscover key elements of the kingdom – and have lots of fun too!
Check back next week for another tasty sample from Simply Eat!