It can be hard or soft, bitter or sweet, dark or light (sometimes even white),
dipped in nuts, filled with caramel, mixed with milk or shaped to look like hearts
and bunnies. It is one of the most popular – and oldest – flavors in the world.
We use it to show love, celebrate holidays, satisfy cravings and sometimes to
woo a mate.
Yes, we’re talking about the joys of chocolate, a food that is produced from the tropical cacao tree and has pleasured people around the world since Mesoamerican tribes began using it in 1100 BC.
It has been called Food for the Gods – and it makes many of us mere mortals salivate just by thinking about it. In fact, one study says 52 percent of American adults rate chocolate as their favorite flavor. (At 12 percent, berry flavors came in a weak second.)
But can eating our to-die-for Godiva chocolates actually deepen our spiritual life?
Jackie Witter thinks so. She’s a member of the staff at the Benedictine Center, a retreat leader and conference speaker, who comes from the Benedictine tradition, which believes everything we do in daily life is sacred and can connect us to the divine.
Even eating chocolate – or maybe because we’re eating chocolate.
She has presented a series of mini-retreats focused on eating and food, which she calls "Food for the Soul." People come to these retreats to sample chocolate or wine or bread and are invited to think about each specific food and the process of eating as a spiritual act that celebrates life. Needless to say, the opportunity to sample chocolate in all its many forms and flavors draws big crowds.
The Charms of Chocolate
"People are passionate about chocolate and they participate in anything that has to do with it," Witter says. "I think many signed up because they wondered how chocolate could be connected to the concept of spirituality – and they were surprised."
Her "chocolate" sessions are held in February, right before Valentine’s Day, "a heavy-duty time for chocolate," she explains. They also precede Lent, a time when many Christians abstain from their favorite foods, such as chocolate, followed by Easter, a time for celebration and indulgence. "It was a good time for us to think about our relationship with food – how we enjoy it, and how we avoid it."
A typical chocolate-eating mini-retreat goes this way: Participants sample a variety of chocolates, from dark to light, smooth to crunchy. They discuss the different tastes and textures and apply them metaphorically to their own lives. For example, what do you do when life is bitter? Do you label it as bad? Reject it? Do you want everything to be smooth and sweet? Would life be dull if that was your only experience? Would life be richer if you experienced its variety and learned how to integrate the bitter with the sweet? How have you tasted the sweetness of God?
"One wife brought her husband who was not necessarily a chocolate lover," Witter recalls. "He didn’t know what he was getting into and thought it would be hokey; but at the end he told me it was a wonderful experience. He was able to reflect on the wholeness of his life and see how everything connects – even the eating of chocolate."
As part of her three-part "Food for the Soul" series, Witter also focuses on bread and wine.
The Breaking of Breads
Because bread has been a staple of almost every civilization since pre-historic times, Witter invites participants to taste a variety of breads from different cultures.
Her discussion soon evolves into the problem of hunger and how the lack of bread, or food, in some countries may affect our own individual wholeness here in Minnesota.
"It’s about being attentive to how we eat," she says. "We are so casual about food and how much we consume in this country, which is so disproportionate compared to what’s available in the rest of the world. Our portion sizes are incredibly huge, and there is so much waste. How much good food is being thrown away? What’s our responsibility to the rest of the world?"
These questions about having too much food (while others go hungry) are troubling, Witter adds, and must be addressed by each individual. "We live in a country with an over-abundance of food and can no longer focus on just feeding ourselves. We must become more intentional about what we eat."
Like bread, she says, we may need some "kneading" and "time to rise" once in a while, to make room for the gifts of generosity and intentionality, "so we, in turn, can reach out and become food for others."
The Word on Wine
Many wine connoisseurs attend this session and are invited to examine their image of wine. In most cultures, it represents a celebration of life and an opportunity to enjoy the company of others. Its benefits to health are well documented. And in some countries it is served with every meal.
"When not used mindfully, of course, wine loses its special meaning," Witter says. "If we are gulping it down or using it to dull our senses, it takes away from – rather than enhances – our enjoyment of life."
What she wants people to understand in these mini-retreats is that daily life is a gift, and everything we do – including the consumption of bread and chocolate and wine – is at the heart of our spiritual journey. Everything connects us to the divine.
"It’s an invitation to ‘come and taste the goodness of the Lord,’" she explains. "I want them to experience how their sense of taste is a gateway to inspired thoughts about their own spiritual lives and their purpose on earth. By sampling these foods, and drinking these wines, I hope they will experience the sweetness of God in everyday life."
For more information about these three-hour retreats, contact the Benedictine Center at 651.777.7251, or [email protected], or www.stpaulsmonastery.org (and click on the Benedictine Center tab).