The Spirituality of Eating and Hunger
I often joke how eating and hunger are unrelated or dichotomous concepts. I tend to eat even when I am not hungry. I could have eaten a multi-course meal and be stuffed to the point of compete self-loathing and would still eat pizza if it was offered to me. When I do that too myself I literally thank God for the person who invented the elastic waistband. For some reason pizza is a tremendous weakness of mine. Even as I write this article I am very conscious there is cold pizza in the fridge and it calls to me.
My other great food weakness and perhaps the greatest delight in the world, is a delicious chocolate chip cookie. I was at a client site the other day and not even hungry when they ordered food to include chocolate cookies literally the size of a small plate. I ate one despite not being hungry. I joked and said this cookie is sinful. We do joke about food that way and often say, “man, that looks sinful.” Or, especially when we are stuffing ourselves with something we shouldn’t be eating or too much of something to the point we can barely breath, we say, “this is sinfully good” or “sinfully delicious.” I joke, we joke, but these words are packed with truth whether we are conscious of it or not. Why is that though? What is it about eating (and drinking, and frankly, breathing) that is spiritual – both in terms of being good or sinful? To answer these questions, we need examine and consider the scriptures, the Eucharist, and aspects our Holy Tradition.
Let’s start with the scriptures. The Bible begins and ends with eating and more specifically God’s commands concerning eating We too see this clearly in the Books of Genesis and Revelation. God tells us in Genesis not to eat of the Tree of Life but in Revelation He tells us to eat of the Tree of Life. Why is that?
To get to the answer we will explore Genesis first. Genesis 2:8-9 reads: “Then the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man He formed. Besides this, God causes every tree beautiful to the sigh and good for food to grow from the ground. Also, in middle, of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of learning the knowledge of good and evil.” Skipping a few verses Genesis 2:16-17 reads: And the Lord God commanded Adam, saying, “You may eat food from every tree in the garden; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat; for in whatever day you eat from it, you shall die by death.” There are two trees in the middle of the Garden and God forbids to Adam to eat of one of them. Why. What is this tree He warns them about and why did God not want Adam to eat of? Father George Morelli, paraphrasing the Church Fathers says this: “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was placed in the Garden to test Adam, but in terms different than we might at first think. God's intention was not to see Adam fall. Rather, the test would allow Adam to affirm his freedom through obedience and thereby grow into greater grace. Freedom makes available the possibility of disobedience; otherwise freedom is really not free.”
Father Morelli’s explanation and interpretation of the Fathers speaks to a fundamental way we, as Orthodox Christians, understand the Garden of Eden story in that we don’t believe Adam and Eve fell from perfection. We read how God created the world and each stage He said: “it was very good.” The word used in Hebrew and Greek does in fact mean good. God did not say “it was perfect. Sin had not entered creation but God still doesn’t say “it was perfect.”
Adam and Eve weren’t perfect. Rather, they were good and had the opportunity to freely grow toward this perfection by their choice. They didn’t go from a perfect state to an utterly depraved state as some Christian traditions hold. Orthodoxy holds to a less extreme view. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware describes it as follows: “Adam fell, not from a great height of knowledge and perfection, but from the state of undeveloped simplicity; hence he is not to be judged too harshly for his error. Certainly, because of the fall the human mind became so darkened, and human willpower was so impaired, that humans can no longer hope to attain the likeness of God. Orthodox, however, do not hold that the fall the price of humanity entirely of God’s grace, they would say that after the fall Grace asked launch humanity from the outside, not from within.” Our nature is not damaged. It remains fundamentally good. It’s our will, or ability to choose correctly that is damaged. The Orthodox Study Bible puts it this way: “Fallen man now has a fallen will, thus he has a tendency to run away from God. But the grace of Christ heals the will of those who return to Him through repentance, so they might freely pursue God and do His will.”
How does this relate to this topic of eating and hunger? The answer is because all this damage came about because of eating, or more properly said, misdirected hunger. If we move forward to Genesis chapter 3 we see in verses 1-7 how the serpent, the devil, tempted both Adam and Eve. Even though he was talking to Eve the scriptures make it clear Adam was there with her. Genesis 3:1-5 reads: “And he [the serpent] said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat from every tree of the garden’?”† And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit from the trees of the garden; but from the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘You shall not eat from it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” Then the serpent said to the woman, “You shall not die by death. For God knows in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” This is interesting and Father Morelli make further commentary on this concerning knowledge and the tactics of the devil. He writes: “What was this tree of knowledge? The Church Fathers taught that it was a fuller knowledge of good and evil that Adam and Eve did not yet possess. Thus, when the devil told them "they would be like God" he was telling the truth, but only by half. Adam and Even did indeed gain the knowledge of good and evil, but also became subject to the evil as a result. Hence the radical disordering -- the brokenness -- of creation that we call "The Fall.”
The devil was telling the truth, though not the complete truth. This is similar to Matthew 4 and the Temptation of Christ in the wilderness. In that encounter, the devil repeatedly used scripture. But it is scripture being used to manipulate. Again, it is not the he devil is lying, but rather distorting. That is how temptation works. It distorts. All the good things God gives, food, drink, sex to name a few – become temptations and sources of harm when their real purpose and function is distorted. What is also interesting in comparing this temptation of Adam and Eve to Christ’s temptation is something the Orthodox Study Bible points out. In its notes to Matthew 4:3 it says, “The devil wants Jesus to act independently and detach Himself from the will of the Father.” Jesus of course triumphed but the devil’s tactics worked on Adam and Eve and that is exactly what they did.
Adam and Eve ate before they were ready. As Father Alexander Schmemann puts it, “the ‘original’ sin is not primarily that man has ‘disobeyed’ God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for God and God alone.” They hungered for life apart from God, life on their own terms. They ceased to be hungry for God.” Here is how I described it in my book Sacramental Living. “We characterize the fall as a failure in fulfilling our mission or accepting our true vocation to have union with God. This is the path Adam and Eve (and now us) wandered from or stopped moving toward, as opposed to a loss of a condition or state. As Father Alexander Schmemann explains, Adam and Eve did not become mortal when they fell as much as they lost their ability to transcend mortality.”
They also seemed to have lost their ability to be smart. Genesis 3:6-7 reads: “So when the woman saw the tree was good for food, was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree beautiful to contemplate, she took its fruit and ate. She also gave it to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of the two were opened, and they knew they were naked. They sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.” Years ago, when I was taking a graduate level comparative religion class, a Rabbi came to our class when the topic was Judaism and Genesis in particular and he said “you Christians have no sense of humor. Adam and Eve east from the tree of knowledge and the first thing they do is put fig leaves on themselves.” None of us in the class, understood and he shook his head at our lack of reaction and explained fig leaves are sticky and break you out in a rash. So, the first thing Adam and Eve did after they are of the tree of knowledge was essentially something stupid.
We know what happens next. God tells Adam and Eve what will happen to them and banishes them from the Garden, banishes them from paradise. I remember saying to my adult class I teach at church “How many of you think the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden goes – God gave Adam and Eve the Garden told them it was theirs and they could have whatever they wanted except don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They listened to the devil, ate it anyway, and God punished them for their disobedience.” A lot of hands went up. Some right away. Some looked around and slowly raised their hands as they saw others in the air but of the people raised their hands. But did God really punish Adam and Eve?
The answer is no. Genesis 3:21-24 reads: “Also for Adam and his wife the Lord God made garments of skin, and clothed them. Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. Now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever—therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of pleasure to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So He cast out Adam, and made him dwell opposite the garden of pleasure. He then stationed the cherubim and the fiery sword which turns every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” God loved them as evidenced by the fact He made them clothes. But there is something else deeper going on and this brings us to the second tree in the center of the garden – the Tree of Life. What is the Tree of Life and why doesn’t God want them to eat of it now? I will answer the second question first.
Unlike some Christian traditions that teach Christ coming to us as one of us and His sacrifice on the cross was to appease the righteous wrath of the Father, our understanding that is part of our Holy Tradition is that God always intended to come as one of us out of love, simply to have Communion with us. After our sin, the purpose of His coming as Christ became redemptive as well. The Orthodox Study Bible note to Genesis 3:24 reads: “Because of Adam, man is born outside Paradise. The tree of life prefigures Christ, through whom man regains Paradise.” The Tree of Life is the cross. The cross and all that it means and stands for is what makes it possible for us to regain paradise through union with Christ. God sending Adam and Eve out of the Garden to die is not punishment but both mercy and opportunity. He is allowing them to die rather than live in sinful state forever. St. Gregory the Theologian explains it like this: “Yet here too He [God] provides a benefit—namely death, which cuts off sin, so that evil may not be everlasting. Thus His punishment is changed into a mercy.”
How can death be a benefit? It is because Christ transformed death through the cross. Death is the gateway to eternal life with Christ if we choose to have union with Him in this life. He gives us the opportunity through His death. The Tree of Life was placed in the center of the Garden, the center of paradise. We know sin, amartia, means to fall short, to miss the mark, like an archer missing the target. The archer is aiming for the center, the bullseye. Our journey to regain paradise is to get to center so to speak, to get to Christ, to have union with Christ and become Christ-like, which is theosis or deification.
How do we do this? We already know the answer but we will examine some important Scriptures in the Book of Revelation starting with Revelations 2:7 in which Christ is speaking and that reads: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” To those who remain faithful to Christ, who struggle in this life no matter what to have union with Him, He will give Himself and we will fulfill our vocation and through union with Him have salvation. The tree is now something we should eat from.
This is paradise regained and we see a beautiful picture of this in Revelation 22 versus 1-5 where John is given a glimpse of paradise restored: “And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever.” As the Orthodox Study Bible puts it: “The tree of life, its fruits and leaves, are now completely and universally therapeutic. God invites to eat and partake.”
This brings me to my final points of this article, and something I personally find beautifully poetic and really drives home the meaning of the Eucharist and what our Holy Tradition teaches us. In Sacramental Living book, I wrote: “Christ, through the Eucharist that He Himself established, gives us back our ability to restore our relationship to God. He repairs our hunger and restores our true vocation. It is important to understand too that when we partake of the Eucharist, we are properly directing our hunger and having union with God. Communion with Christ is continual reparation of sin. It was Adam and Eve’s improper direction or their hunger to seek life apart from God that led to sin.”
Adam and Eve sinned through eating. Their sin was hungering for life apart from God; life on their own terms; they directed their hunger improperly, away from God. Each week when we voluntarily fast on Wednesday’s and Friday, we are subordinating our will to what we may really want to eat, and by doing this redirecting our hunger back to God and preparing to receive Christ We then receive Christ in the Eucharist; we receive Christ and have union with Him through the act of eating, through properly fulfilling the desire of hunger. This is why understanding the dynamics of hunger and eating are so extremely important to our faith and sacramental understanding of reality.