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Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...

 

Aptin's Feast

Cross posted at The Rabbit Room. From the minute I stepped off the plane that brought me home to Colorado from Hutchmoot, I've had this post in my head. "Better late than never," is an adage I am coming to embrace as a writer, because I never get things written as quickly as I think I will. But Hutchmoot has followed me. The stories told and people met have stayed with me in so fresh a way that I have decided to write about it no matter how late. So this is my delayed, but heartfelt tribute to Hutchmoot. I must begin it by saying that one of the best parts of Hutchmoot to me was the feasting. Evie's meals have now become the stuff of legend. I love this, because the meals we ate became a metaphor for what was offered to our souls in the sessions and dinner-table conversation. But I also love it because it put me in mind of another feast I experienced, a feast that changed my life. And a feast that will help me explain why I feel that Hutchmoot was a time of such grace.

It all began several years back, when I spent a summer as a ministry intern in England. I worked with a group intent on changing culture and having the right theology and worldview. I did it because, well, it was England after all. It was C.S. Lewis country. It was faith and academics and pubs and tea. I thought it seemed a worthy sort of work. Deep down, secret in my heart though, I also yearned to know God. Though I believed in him, he felt distant and vague to me, and I thought working with theological experts might finally answer my hunger to truly know his love. Oh, but I was starry eyed.

After two months of hearing everything there was to know about God, after sitting in two or three dozen lectures on Scripture, poring over worldview books, writing papers, and talking about God round the clock, I woke one morning and realized that I felt farther from him than I ever had. The realization was so stark, my soul so barren, I barely knew if I could finish my internship. Later that day, I heard a lecture on the six interpretations of the word "hell" and the fate of the people sent there. When the lecturer stated that he knew for sure that only one of them was true (the cruelest, I thought), something in me snapped. I didn't even want to know so awful a God in so dark a world anymore. I finished my work and nearly ran the cobblestone streets back to the refuge of my attic room. But that's where the grand bit of the story begins, because right then, when I was close to throwing my faith out the window, a man named Aptin was ready to save my faith with an offering of grace.

My home that summer was a rambly old manor house made over as student lodging. Good bones kept it standing, but its joints were all out of place in odd staircases and tipsy attic rooms. A narrow, homey little kitchen glowed at its heart though, crammed with mismatched teacups and a window that let in the sunset light as I cooked. This became my place of refuge in the evenings, and most days, Aptin cooked with me.

Aptin was a professor of something or other who commuted to London. He was from Iran, and had escaped with his parents when the Shah was overthrown. I'm sure he had a somewhat glamorous story, but I knew him mostly for his gourmet cooking, his friendly demeanor, and the snatched talks we had about life and travel. We both got home late most nights, and while he grilled salmon or concocted a souffle, we talked. I loved his stories and he distracted me from the bland monotony of my student's fare of eggs and toast. On this particular night though, my budget and soul were both so tight, I made plain oatmeal and ended up just passing him as I headed upstairs with my dinner tray.

"Wait," he said, in his high voice with its British accent, "I have found a new place in London, so I'm moving. I'm throwing myself a going away party in the garden tomorrow night - I'd be so happy if you could come." I nodded my acceptance. I had two days off, and even if I intended to spend them having a spiritual nervous breakdown, I couldn't offend my friend.

The morrow found me mad. Furious with myself for being the sort of person that struggled in her faith. Furious with the teachers I had trusted to lead me closer to God, and who, I felt, had shoved me away from any sense of his love. Furious, I must admit, with God himself who had left me to bumble about in a lonely darkness. By evening, I was fit company for no one, but I forced myself downstairs, eyes down, heart in my toes.

One step outside, I looked up, and I could not help it; I smiled. The garden had been transformed into the site of a fairy tale feast. The prim, green squares of English lawn were ranked by tables heaped with food like plunder. Aptin must have raided every grocer in town to fill the first with thirty different cheeses that sat amidst mounded breads, olive pates, and cracker stacks. Three giant bowls of fruit graced the next, full of grapes, pineapple, and tiny English strawberries, leaves and stems intact. The last was the crown, two or three dozen bottles of wine, among them the elderflower cordial I had come to crave during my English sojourn. As my feet sank into the grass, Aptin hurried over from the rounds he was making, shaking hands, laughing.

"Oh, I am so glad you came! It's a perfect night for a feast - fill as many plates as you can."

I obeyed. I sighed for the sheer relief of distraction, and somewhere between the brie and the cordial, I forgot to stew on my crisis. There was simply too much to enjoy. Plate filled, I found a seat under a gnarled old apple tree. The light was honey and gold and it fell on my head through the green apples and heat-struck leaves. The setting sun dyed the garden gold, and everything in it glowed; poppies and roses, the red stone walls, the rich, worn wood of the tables. A merry group of housemates soon joined me, and an air undeniably hobbit-like descended upon our feast.

For almost the first time that summer, I talked with my neighbors. I shared internship woes with Andrea, a German student. I asked Debbie, a doctoral candidate in theology, all about her studies. And I finally worked up the courage to talk to Ged, our housemother, a former nun who had left a strict, secluded convent to run the house for the summer. I questioned her about a life of contemplation and prayer, and in her gentle, reticent way, she told me her tale. "But I needed to be with people again," she ended. I simply nodded, knowing the truth of that need as I basked in the friendly presence of the woman beside me and the other friends round me. Night grew up as we lingered, a warm, hushed darkness that slowed our breath and rested our bodies. Bugs chirruped. Stars blinked. We chatted to the clink of plates refilled and glasses brimmed again. When sleepiness finally came, I climbed slowly to bed.

The minute I opened the door, my earlier struggle sprang, catlike, from the shadows. I clearly remember the way I tensed, and even clearer, I remember the peace that came and relaxed my fear. Darkness passed me by and I sat down on the edge of the bed, shocked at my lightened heart. The silver light of the moon fell full on my face and out of the blue, I know God loved me. I knew he was with me. A calm warmth filled every nook of my soul and I knew that I was held, kept, loved just as much as I had hoped. Grace cradled my heart and doubt seemed like a ghost. And it was all because that night, I had finally touched something real.

God, I finally realized, is not merely a thought I must think, or a proposition I must know. For the first time in weeks, I had tasted good food and rested. I had spent time in the fresh, green glory of the garden, seen the myriad colors, tasted the fresh, fresh air. For almost the first time that summer, I'd had a personal conversation, I had exchanged stories, doubts even, with a friend. And I'd been still. Quiet finally had a chance to still the frenzy of my thoughts. Sitting there in the moonlight, I came to the knowledge I had so hungered to find. God is the lover and maker, the friend and creator. He reveals his goodness in the tastable, touchable wonder of his world. His love is felt in the fellowship of his people. His joy is what sings in the wind and spices the best wine, and glimmers in the gold of sunset. In the savor of feasts, the cadence of seasons, in apples crunched and friends touched, God is known for the eternal Good that he is.

But I had lived apart from that goodness all summer. I had tried to know God by thinking about him. By working for him. By saying the right things about him. All the while, I ignored the earth and people God made so that I might know his soul. To grasp truth is vital, and I know it is something that must be taught in an age of such spiritual confusion. But truth must be enfleshed by love and beauty, or it will ring empty to the soul. Beauty known and people loved are the great ways that God offers his hands to us while we sojourn here in the earth. By loving, by feasting, by touching his beauty, we grasp him back and let him fill our hearts with joy. Two months of study couldn't give me what one night of feasting could, because I was made to touch and taste and see the goodness of God. I don't even know if Aptin had my faith, but somehow, he had grasped a heart of celebration. He understood the grace that beauty and friendship bring, and through the gift of his feast, he saved my faith.

The reason I tell this story here is because, for me, The Rabbit Room is that feast continued.  I discovered the Rabbit Room the same year I went to England, and as I grew, slowly, in trusting a God of beauty, it became a refuge for my heart. The Rabbit Room community sheltered me as I learned to let stories, music, and nature bring God close to my heart. In the daily creativity and fellowship of this place, I experienced that sense of God being not just a thought to be known, but a song to be sung, a story told, a friendship sealed by love of the same good things. Then I went to Hutchmoot and felt that I had stepped into Aptin's garden all over again.

Taste and see that God is good, says David in the Psalms. And at Hutchmoot, we did. We sipped wine and gobbled up spiced rice and roasted chicken made by the matchless Chef Evie, and we knew that God is good. We lingered at conversations that rambled onto holy ground, sat and marveled at songs that sang out the hungers in our souls. We watched light drip through a stained glass window onto the heads of a band of musicians merrily re-enacting the Last Supper, and we knew that God is a God who has laughter every day.

And the laughter continues here, now, in the Rabbit Room. To stumble into a feast is one thing, to have a daily bit of savory bread served to me through this place is another level of grace altogether. So this is my roundabout and heartfelt tribute to Hutchmoot, and really, to the whole Rabbit Room. It is my thanks to all you feasting folk who make this a place where God is touched as well as talked about. To me, the Rabbit Room is Aptin's feast continued every day. Since that feast restored my faith, I can think of no more heartfelt compliment. God bless you Aptin, wherever you are. God bless the Rabbit Room, and all of us here as we strive to taste and see his goodness. And Hutchmoot 2011, here I come.