As my sister Cecele’s final weeks became only days, the adage “You are what you eat” took on new meaning for me. Though Cecele lost her interest in food for the most part, she sometimes requested small morsels of cool watermelon. When she could no longer stay awake long enough to eat it, the watermelon gave way to sips of juice and water and ice chips. As I watched her intake diminish, it occurred to me that Cecele is much more than what she ate. She has to be in order to have found the strength to journey home.
During her last days, my sister slept through much of the time which we spent with her. I sat with her for hours listening to the rhythm of her breathing and studying the contours of her face and eyes. My sister has beautiful eyes. Occasionally, a growling stomach –not my sister’s, but my own– interrupted my contemplation. When it did, I tiptoed from her beside and out to the kitchen. As I prepared my daily bread –actually tuna salad and rice cakes– I considered those words again: “You are what you eat.” I admitted to myself that I have become a marginally lean person as a result of my leaner and healthier food choices. Still, like my sister, I’d like to think that I am a bit more than the things that I eat these days.
When I considered my sister Cecele’s diet, which finally became non-existent except for a few drops of medicine every four hours, I argued with no one in particular that Cecele is absolutely much more than she ate, much more indeed! Cecele’s final days among us offered poignant evidence of her physical and spiritual strength. Though her body continued to breakdown from within and without, her presence remained remarkably tangible through it all.
Scripture readings from Proverbs, Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians and John’s Gospel offer commentary regarding the necessity and the power of the things we take in. Yes, each of us is far more than what we eat. We are part and parcel of the non-tangible nourishment that we allow into our hearts and souls. Proverbs (9:1-6) personifies Wisdom, the gracious host who offers understanding of the only things that truly matter to God’s people. Wisdom promises that those who open their hearts to her will grow in their appreciation of the essentials of this life and the next. If we are wise, Wisdom assures us, the troubles of this life will never defeat us. In his letter to the Ephesians (5:15-20), Paul adds a directive to Wisdom’s generous invitation. “Do not get drunk on wine,” Paul insists, “but be filled with the Spirit.” Paul knows well that we are called to be far more than what we eat. We are called to take in every opportunity we are given in both good times and in bad. When we respond to these opportunities in accord with God’s ways, we nourish ourselves for the long days and trials that lie ahead.
The passages from Proverbs and Ephesians prepare us for a much deeper understanding of John’s gospel (6:51-58). This familiar account of Jesus’ challenge to eat his flesh and drink his blood calls us to far more that a walk up the aisle to partake of the Eucharist at Mass. Jesus calls us to make his entire being –body, blood, soul and divinity– the essence of who we are. We must be what we eat, not only physically, but spiritually as well, in our presence and responses to one another and to every situation that unfolds before us. Yes, God calls us to take in Jesus and to make Jesus’ ways our own.
Just after my sister passed away, I whispered to her, “You are what you eat and so much more.” Cecele, today let me add, “I am so grateful that you ate of the wonder of this life. You feasted upon love for your family and their love for you. You feasted upon integrity and shared your desire for excellence in your workplace. You feasted upon strength during the difficult years and you nourished your children and grandchildren with the same. You feasted on faith and that faith has lead you home. Now, you feast with God, the source of the only nourishment that truly matters.”
As I write, pangs of hunger bring tears to my eyes. This time, the rice cakes and tuna salad won’t satisfy. This time, only the consoling company of God and the good people God places around me sustain me and allow me to go on.
©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved