Eating Manna at the Monastery

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July 2/15, 2012, Placing of the Honorable Robe of the Most Holy Theotokos at Blachernae (5th cent.)

I always feel uncomfortable when someone asks about my favorite food in Russia, for like the Israelites in the desert, it is not so much about what’s on the menu as the relationship with the Provider. Manna, what the Israelites ate in the desert, literally means “What is it?” But a better question than this is, “Who gave it?” For in both cases of manna and monastery food, they clearly come from heaven.

At the Divyevo trapeza, the free one offered to all pilgrims, the menu never really changes: soup, bread, tea, and that ever useful, multi-purpose, everywhere present KASHA. True confession that I have never really liked kasha, probably because of its plainness. I probably have asked the disdainful question of the Israelites about it as well, “Just what exactly is it?” In America, its humility places it on the bottom of the breakfast menu. We really only know one kind of kasha, oatmeal, and no one but a health nut ever really orders it. Yet there is something about kasha which makes Russians love it, for among other things, it is ordinary food which gives strength and endurance to pilgrims.

Food, reminds the apostle Paul, does not bring us near to God. We are no better if we do not eat, or if we do eat (I Cor. 8:8). It is rather the setting or context that can help us in our salvation. Our family has never had a meal in a monastery that did not taste delicious because of how it was consecrated by love for God and prayer. The lives of the desert fathers and the record of the deplorable things they consumed testifies that God can indeed turn stones into bread.

While we in America obsess over the right restaurant or the perfect gourmet experience, we miss the point. Kasha, like the ancient Manna, directs our attention away from gourmet obsessions toward thankfulness for whatever God provides.

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