BY JUDITH LYNCH
I’ve got a soft spot for cafeterias. When I was in primary school the highlight of my school holidays was a tram trip into town followed by lunch at Coles cafeteria.
The cafeteria was large and noisy, tables were scarce and one of we kids was delegated to save a table while the others collected their tray. The food counter was long and to my childish eyes absolutely the last word in culinary sophistication but I always chose the same thing – a meat pie and chocolate milk.
When I am called a cafeteria catholic I know well enough what is meant – that I am a Catholic who questions or challenges certain beliefs or practices held dear by other Catholics. As if I wander along a counter set out with 2000 years of Catholic tradition, papal declarations, rules and heresay, declaring I’ll believe this, and this, can’t believe that, this is of date and so on.
The trouble with images is that they only tell a fraction of a story. Cafeterias are more than a choice of prepared dishes set out on a long counter. Even though they might be big, and short on tasteful décor, cafeterias are welcoming.
They’re as convenient for mums with noisy little kids as they are for a pensioner enjoying the feel of life flowing around them. They offer uncomplicated and familiar food that is more affordable than most restaurants.
As my childish my beliefs and perceptions have broadened along with my shape, my tastes in food have changed too. The cafeteria food of my childhood is OK sometimes but generally speaking my palate craves more adult savoury, garlicky, tongue tingling tastes. I have begun to wonder if my faith has something of a deli flavour about it as well.
When I stand at the deli counter and point and the shop assistant cuts off a slab of cheese and wraps it in greaseproof paper I can’t wait to get home and try it. It might be just one cheese among many but it’s a new-tasting cheese to me. Which is something like my understanding of basic catholic beliefs in something as ordinary and familiar as baptism or prayer. There’s always a new taste, a new perception just waiting to be savoured.
As my faith has unfolded from the institutional approach taught and caught in my catholic home and school, through a smorgasbord of teaching jobs and on-going faith education to the more settled place I am in today, the creedal basics of my childhood faith haven’t changed. How I experience and live them has.
Gradually I’ve come to the realisation that early religious “conditioning” sometimes substitutes religious practices and traditions for the deep truths of the Christian faith.
When I bite into a piece of oiled and toasted Turkish bread smeared with basil pesto and topped with fresh tomato, my taste buds delight in the multiplicity of flavours. I can compare it to studying and meditating on Scripture or reading a thought provoking article on a web site such as CathNews.
The deli flavour of it can be very satisfying, opening me up to new ways of understanding truths that I had previously seen as words in the catechism. This isn’t the picking and choosing of a cafeteria but the search and thrill of finding new flavours that once I’d never imagined. It’s a glimpse of the mysterious presence of God.
At my Baptism I was gifted with a formal recognition of the relationship between God and myself. For years it tasted bland and predictable.
Now I bite into that gift and find that it bursting with flavour, faith flavours, like the wonder of seeing my unborn grandson in an ultrasound, difficult but exhilarating hours spent teasing apart the strands of scriptural interpretation, feeling free to question what once I accepted unquestioningly, learning to identify and hear the voice of God my deepest desires, accepting that the ordinariness of everyday is the wrapping paper of God’s presence.
All of this is paradoxical, simple yet complex, tough but delicate and difficult to put into words.
So now I approach my Catholic Christian faith like I do a platter of antipasto. Lots of lovely flavours to anticipate, savour and share, tastes to integrate into my everyday cooking , and , just to ground me, an occasional unwelcome sliver of VERY hot chilli.
Judith Lynch is a writer who lives in Melbourne. More of her writing appears at tarellaspirituality.com
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