Small, Good Things
September 13, 2012 | by Casey N. Cep
One of Mary Oliver’s poems begins “Something has happened / to the bread / and the wine.” A most unusual mystery, the comestibles have not gone the way of the plums in William Carlos William’s “This Is Just to Say.”
Oliver’s wine and bread, as she explains in the second stanza, “have been blessed.” These two central elements of the Christian faith have been lifted from their ordinariness, isolated in order to show the extraordinariness of even the most ordinary of things. The bread and the wine join water and words to become what believers call sacraments: Eucharist is a sacrament made from staple food and festive drink; baptism is a sacrament made of clean, clear water.
One way of understanding the sacraments, perhaps best articulated by liturgist Gordon Lathrop, is that simple things become central things. When Christians refer to the bath and the table, they refer not only to the specific sacraments of bathing and eating, but they point also to the sacramental character of every bath and every table. The setting apart of one table and one bath shows forth the splendor of all tables and all baths.
That setting apart is the calling of Christians but also the vocation of the writer. The attentiveness of the writer is shown in how that writer lifts to the level of extraordinary the most ordinary of people, places, and things.
Not surprisingly, the great Catholic writers are extolled for sacramental writing, often for their accounts of communion. Graham Greene’s “The Hint of an Explanation” develops around an overdue confession by a grown altar boy who stole a consecrated wafer as a child. Flannery O’Connor included profound descriptions of the Eucharist in her letters and essays but also included some playful accounts in her fiction, my favorite of which is the old priest in “The Displaced Person” who, not being able to talk theology with Mrs. McIntyre or any of her farmhands, “came regularly once a week with a bag of breadcrumbs” for the peacocks. The stories of J. F. Powers are cluttered with cassocks and communion rails, including a debate over the merits of wood and glass chalices in the book of papal denunciations that Brother Titus reads to Father Didymus in “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does.”
But other writers have performed the miracle of making ordinary meals into something extraordinary. I do not mean to invoke the extravagance of a meal like “Babette’s Feast,” where Karen Blixen’s heroine uses the largesse of her lottery winnings to produce a sensual banquet beyond compare. No, those six courses are far too obvious an example of gustatory grace, even though they do manage to seduce the strict Christian sect of the story.
I am thinking of writers like Andre Dubus, a Catholic whose sacraments were always spilling out of the sanctuary and into the world. Take “Out of the Snow,” one of Dubus’s stories featuring LuAnn Acreneaux, the mother who “watching the brown sugar bubbling in the light of the flames, smelling it and the cinnamon, and listening to her family talking about snow … told herself that this toast and oatmeal were a sacrament, the physical form that love assumed in this moment.”
Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” progresses to a sacramental meal of this kind. In this sparsely populated story, Ann and Howard Weiss suffer the loss of their eight-year-old son, Scotty. An unnamed baker hired to bake the boy’s eighth-birthday cake takes on the role of antagonist, becoming more despised than the driver who hits Scotty with his car and drives away from the scene of the accident.
Having ordered an expensive cake for the boy’s birthday that they do not remember to retrieve after his death, Ann and Howard are subjected to what seem like harassing telephone calls regarding their son. The baker calls to ask menacing questions—“Have you forgotten about Scotty?” and “Did you forget him?”—but never identifies himself during the conversations.
These calls are heartbreaking punctuation marks in the story, as Ann and Howard, racing to and from the hospital, are antagonized by an unidentified, disembodied voice on the phone. So real is the terror of the calls that at one point Howard wonders if “maybe [it is] the driver of the car, maybe he’s a psychopath and found out about Scotty somehow.”
Ann eventually realizes it is the baker calling on the phone. Incensed, she demands that Howard drive her immediately to the shopping center to confront the man. Arriving at midnight and interrupting the baker during his nighttime baking routine, Ann feels “a deep burning inside her, an anger that made her feel larger than herself,” and she confesses to the baker “I wanted to kill you. I wanted you dead.”
Both Ann and the baker are placated only when she announces her son’s death. “Let me say how sorry I am,” the baker answers. “God alone knows how sorry.” He pours coffee and pulls the rolls from the oven, explaining to Howard and Ann, “You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.”
The scene is sublime: malice turned to kindness, hardness turned to love, three disparate persons linked to one another in the simple act of eating. Carver has given us a systematic definition and illustration of the sacraments: “a small, good thing in a time like this.” The Eucharist is indeed one of those centering rituals that give meaning and shape to chaos. “Taste and see,” the Psalmist says in Psalm 34, but “smell this,” the baker in Carver’s stories demands of his guests.
Another such culinary miracle can be found in J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. When the benignity of Bessie’s chicken soup offering goes unnoticed by Franny, Zooey tells his sister that “if it’s the religious life you want, you ought to know right now that you’re missing out on every single goddamn religious action that’s going on around this house. You don’t even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup.”
Zooey argues that all food can be consecrated, even chicken soup, and that consecration is not some far removed religious ritual performed only by priests in temples, but the simple, central act of one person serving another. “How in hell are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man,” Zooey asks his sister, “if you don’t even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it’s right in front of your nose?”
Plain rolls and coffee, warm chicken soup, and oatmeal on the stove top: these are the sorts of recipes for communion that astound me. It is the sort of recipe found in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. A lifetime of wafers and wine at the altar, but what does the dying Reverend John Ames recall for his young son as the holiest of meals? Remembering the day he went with his father to assist with the demolition of a church struck by lightening, Ames says that “my father brought me a piece of biscuit for my lunch, and I crawled out and knelt with him there, in the rain. I remember it as if he broke the bread and put a bit of it in my mouth.”
A simple, ash-covered biscuit split between father and son was for Ames the most sacred of meals. He remembers it decades later, sanguine that his own son will form a similar memory of bread passing from his hands into the boy’s mouth.
Ames’s biscuit resembles the famous “fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell” in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. One cannot contemplate gustatory grace in fiction without thinking of that tea-stained madeleine, for it is only after biting into that cake that the narrator remembers his Aunt Léonie and all of the madeleines she used to serve him as a child in Combray. Moved from solipsism to communion with others, Proust’s narrator evidences the miracle of an ordinary meal becoming something more. The simple act of eating awakens an entire universe of memory and meaning:
And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me … immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was...and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine … and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
The same miracle occurs in To the Lighthouse when Mrs. Ramsay’s boeuf en daube is declared “a perfect triumph.” Candles light the faces of the Ramsays and their guests as Mrs. Ramsay’s extraordinary effort to make a home and a family culminates in the assembly of ingredients and ambition and affection into a “confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats.” This dinner party consummates the opening section of the novel, fixing itself in the memories of those present, uniting them for when “Time Passes” in the second section of Woolf’s novel.
“Something has happened,” Mary Oliver would say, to the beef and the vegetables and the broth in Woolf’s fairy tale on the Isle of Skye. Like the madeleine and the tea in Proust, like the coffee and rolls in Carver, Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner party has become a masterpiece: simple things have been transformed by Woolf’s sustained attention.
Grace may be the gift of the sacraments, but mindfulness is the gift produced by the writer’s rituals. Christians believe that baptism and communion were created and are sustained by God, rituals set apart in order to illuminate every bath and every meal. The parallel for writers like Woolf, Proust, Robinson, Salinger, and Carver is that their rendering of particular and perfect meals illuminates the potential for communion: readers are brought to the belief that one character or one story can show forth the splendor of all characters and all stories.
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.