Recently when I read one theological article in the Catholic newspaper, I was surprised that the author used the term “chewing the Word of God.” My mind suddenly jumped to eating. No wonder, because I often even dream about meals and their preparation. In that moment I saw the intersection of the two worlds. Yes, that’s the way it is! The author of the article explained that when a person chews God’s Word, then the Word has the opportunity to resonate, present self and continue to sound. This is exactly the case with food and dining. Resonating, giving inpact and staying in memory! This is the goal. We shouldn’t eat just only as by the way. Just for self. Alone. The food and the opportunity to eat are worth chewing on. Yes, let our taste buds dance and play and rejoice that we eat and we are. Let’s chew!
I remember being fascinated by sheeps in the Faroe Islands. They layd and chewed. It was their job to chew. Their joy at the same time. I admired them. Of course, we humans have more complicated tasks to do. We have to bring into realization many different assingments, and when we say that he or she is just chewing, it is usually not commendable. Chewing has taken on a kind of meaning of unnecessary work, and unfortunately this is also reflected in our way how we eat. We bite little. We chew little. We desire rather meals which are soft and melt on our tongues. We don’t want to work on chewing. And that’s a shame. We are depriving ourselves of the nice spiritual time of reciprocity “me and food”, as well as of the activity itself. We deny our mouths the opportunity to be important.
In Japan, I’ve always liked the fact that the Japanese consider biting and chewing to be fun. Something that adds dynamism to eating. One dish is liquidy, another powdery, another soft, another solid and still another jelly-like. Every consistency wants its own. Has own enjoyment. When something is to be chewed, such as konnyaku or white fugue fish meat, it is good to chew. Even forty times each bite. When something is crunchy, it is good to crunch. When we eat an apple and hear the sound right in own ear, isn’t it joyful? For the Japanese ideed it is a joy. Maybe only monks in Buddhist monasteries are not allowed to make sounds while eating, probably to suppress their ego, but this is not usual for common people. It is well known that noodles like udon should be sucked in with a sound of an impressive splash. I have to say that it’s not easy to conjure the right sound. It is also well known that some Japanese chew loud and they justify themselves with argument that it is a sign that they love the given food. I do not recommend loud chewing, but for example the sound of crunching, this is considered a nice appreciated sound, so do not try to eliminate it. Once, when I was still a beginner at Tea ceremony, I was very surprised when guests paid admirable attention to eating pickeled vegetable called tsukemono during a noble kaiseki menu. The crunchy sound spread and everyone looked happy. Gradually this became my favorite part of the ceremony. We ate the same food and at the same time and the crunch sound coming from our mouths united us in a cosy mood. We experienced intensely that we wanted to be together. Even I, a foreigner in Japan, felt warmly accepted in those crunchful moments.
Eating during the Tea ceremony is also meditation, so we the guests honoring the Zen philosophy tried to live the “now and here” rule. We consciously tried to be fully present, focusing on food and on each other. As the sound of crunching spread through the room, someone surely said admiringly: “Oh, this pickeled radish crunches so wonderfully!” And surprisingly no one thought it was funny. Every second of the feast was thought through in detail by our host in advance, and it was up to us guests to be able to perceive the offerings to the last perception. This is what is expected of guests. Not just being a mere guest. It is necessary to be a guest educated in eating. When drinking your soup, you drink it with admiration. When you eat rice, you think of rice. It is good to pay attention to the material used helping each ingredient shine for a while. Besides the ochaji experience will teach guests when to say something and when to be silent. And how to say. Conversation is the art of sharing. Each guest thinks of the other. They are led by the desire to create harmony, to show respect, to perceive purity and to experience peace of the soul.
Harmony, respect, purity and peace, yes, these are the basic building blocks of the Tea ceremony. Assigning the word “chew” to these noble ideas sounds inappropriate. “Chewing the Word of God” also tugged at my ears. It provoked me to the image that even in the Tea ceremony with kaiseki, guests should chew on everything around them. Host and their co-guests in particular. Also on all things. All food. All conversation. I came up with a conclusion that when guests allow themselves to swallow without proper chewing, they are only half guests missing a lot!
I must admit that I was such a half guest for a long time. First, it took me two years before I began to perceive anything more than my sore feet in the seiza sitting position. Secondly, I couldn’t read the symbols and the ceremony seemed too long. And third, there were no intellectual discussions at the ceremony. What kept me going was my determination that there must be something to the ceremony what is worse to discover. And then it came. I remember how I said spontaneously “This is so delicious!”, even though the thing was just hot water with a pine needle. It was a sincere expression of joy, and I knew in that very moment that I was finally a fully fledged guest. I could see. I could read. I fit in. I was I and we at the same time. The menu course that has become so important to me is called “hashiarai” and it is literally „washing the chopsticks“. Finally I was really part of the ceremony. I was present in space and time with my co-guests and we all enjoyed the same experiences. It was enough for me just to be. Me and us. I didn’t have to deal with anything and I didn’t have to show anything. My whole being was contended. Flooded with gratitude. I have been learning to chew the Tea ceremony for so long time that chewing became my embodied virtue for a while. I learned with commitment and perseverance, so that I could forget to learn. The Japanese express this teaching of learnig to forget in various ways and it’s never easy to understand.
It is similar with God’s Word. You chew and chew until you sometimes realize that you are miraculously a co-guest with the Lord, your neighbors and everything around you. It is infinitely beautiful, but one must not forget that it doesn’t work without our part of biting and chewing!