Two social activities dominate my time here. Eating and churchgoing. Both are quite solitary activities. Eating alone is something which I have to do, dinner companionship being rather sparse, indeed, mostly non-existent. Singles of my particular vintage are best left to their own murky devices, perhaps. Being a creature of shamefully predictable habit, it takes quite an effort of will to insist to myself that I go and explore the multitude of dining options here. Instead, I find myself on an almost nightly basis at the same congenial little watering hole. The wait staff know me, I always drink the same beverage and before I have removed my coat, it is waiting for me. I know the menu very well, so much so that the ‘specials’ are often restricted and there is no calamari on a Tuesday, prompting idle speculation about their delivery scheduling. I drink disgusting coffee and pretend to enjoy it. I listen to conversations around me, most of which are to do with human relationships and the breakdowns thereof. If invited, I nod, sagely, murmuring agreement.
But, churchgoing alone? Why? How can it be that you can attend the same meeting, service, gathering or whatever every week at the same time and still feel it to be a solitary activity? The wait staff might be a bit more extravagantly attired, but they know me. The same beverage and indeed foodstuff is on offer every week. I know the menu very well and can repeat it back when required in more or less the right places. I drink disgusting coffee and pretend to enjoy it. I listen to conversations around me most of which are to do with the breakdown of relationships with God. If invited, I nod sagely, murmuring agreement.
No, it isn’t really quite like this, because in both places, we want to be recognised. We want to be known.
I get to listen to very good Old Testament teaching with the chandelier-swingers before composing myself into suitably camel-faced sobriety for the Anglicans on Sunday evenings where one does rather have to behave oneself. The former are running a series on the Tabernacle – the portable tent the fledgling nation of nomads and wilderness wanderers carried around with them as they travelled for a rather long time in the desert, if Scripture is to be taken literally. Living here, one is surrounded by experts on the OT and the preacher was no exception, sprinkling some of the Levitical scriptures with a generous seasoning of Talmudic wisdom. The Holy Place, where the priests went, contained inter alia twelve loaves stacked in sixes on a portable acacia wood table the size of a piano stool and was, it appears, an archetype, almost a replica of a wealthy man’s dining room of the period, containing as it did, a menorah for light and an incense burner for the olfactory delight of the guests.
God invited people to ‘eat a bit’, as a Jewish mother, or indeed, an Anglican priest might say. I think he still does and it never ceases to amaze me that the tent of meeting with its intricate, exact paraphernalia foreshadows Christ in minute, perfect detail. How did they miss it?
Before knives and forks, eating together and sharing food was a more congenially intimate activity than it has now become. Stretching over the table to grab the tabouleh bowl or the pitas was really OK. Speaking with one’s mouth full was probably quite all right. The necessity of nourishment brought intimacy, cemented family and allowed inclusion of sojourners, wayfarers and the odd vagabond like me.
All of which, I suppose, reminds even my vagabond soul that there is somewhere where I am known, there is such a place as home, material in France where the food is good and the conversation flows like a good Bordeaux, and spiritual, in the houses we build to accommodate our God, who is still to be found there, but who needs nothing more than a table in the wilderness where stones are turned into bread.