A Recipe for Weary Souls
M. Jeanne Wirpsa
February 5, 2017
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13)
I don’t know about the rest of you but I have absolutely no idea what salt tastes like when it has lost its flavor. Maybe during Mathew’s days they had different techniques for mining and storing salt that led to this depletion of taste. The salt I buy – be it Morton Salt or Kosher salt – always seems to fill its function just fine. Since I don’t really “get” the salt metaphor, humor me while I offer another one from the culinary world that hopefully will invite us to think about the question on my mind today – How do we sustain ourselves for the work of justice and mercy to which we are called? How do we find the staying power we need for the long road ahead?
I don’t know about you, but I’m in need of more than a little sustenance right now. On a personal level, I’m wrestling with some old demons from my past. I did not get the promotion at work I wanted. The darkness of winter combined with the darkness of our political system threatens to rob me of energy and light. I’m tempted to give in to the feelings of demoralization and weariness.
And yet, I know I don’t have that luxury. The vulnerable, the unwanted, the stranger don’t have the luxury of laying down their load, so neither can I. Neither can we. Now is NOT the time to hide under the covers or, to use Mathew’s other metaphor, to hide our light under a bushel.
So here’s my remedy by way of metaphor: One of my favorite vegetarian recipes is an old Tuscan soup, Ribollita. It is often referred to as the “poor man’s stew.” It literally means “re-boiled” as the servants used to take the old broth from yesterday’s Minestrone soup, add food-soaked trenchers from the Lord’s banquets and boil them for their own dinners. There are now many variations but the main ingredients always include leftover bread, cannellini beans, crushed tomatoes, nearly a pound of Lacinato kale, and inexpensive vegetables such as carrots, celery, and onions. The version I love is topped with a layer of bread, thinly sliced red onions, and parmesan cheese.
Now while I’m convinced the crispy layer is the sole reason my vegetarian daughter eats the soup, the key to the success of this dish are the herbs. As the broth simmers, you add not only the usual suspects – garlic, salt and pepper, bay leaves – but also FRESH sprigs of rosemary and thyme. Yes, fresh whole sprigs of rosemary and thyme. I once tried to make it using dried herbs – trust me, it just did not taste the same. As the soup simmers, the kitchen becomes saturated with the aroma of rosemary and thyme. The savory, comforting smell soon reaches every corner of the house and it’s as if you are transported to a small village in the south of Italy where all is right with the world.
Lest I leave you confused about the recipe, please note that it helps to use ripe Italian tomatoes, fresh kale, and real (not that fake, canned) parmesan cheese. But these ingredients fall flat without the herbs. It is the rosemary and thyme that make the tomatoes pop and the kale sing. It is the rosemary and thyme that call forth the full flavor of the Ribollita.
Salt or rosemary or thyme or ginger or lime…you name it. It is always one or two simple, understated, and unexpected ingredients that make or break a dish. It’s the same for our individual lives as well as our community.
So take a second and think. Shift your focus from this week’s worries about bills or health care, from news of more violent deaths, and from harmful, frightening presidential edicts. Shift your focus from organizing and agitating and protesting. Just for this moment, shift your focus from feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger. Focus on who or what it is that gives YOU comfort, strength, and joy. Who or what are your rosemary and thyme?
As many of you know I work as a chaplain at NMH, mostly with patients and families facing serious and life-limiting cancers. The course of treatment for many of these cancers is arduous and long, and the outcome uncertain. The weight of the diagnosis and treatment together can be crushing. Weary is the word I hear often from patients and their loved ones. Weary to the bone.
Since every other profession in the hospital gives out prescriptions (you know -- two pills three times a day, chemo once a week), I like to do the same every now and then, especially in response to bone crushing weariness. My prescription read something like this: “I so wish I had the power to take this load off you. I can’t change what you must go through if you want to try to fight this cancer. So here’s what I’ve learned from other patients and families: You need a double dose of beauty and joy to balance out the badness and suffering.” Now if there is even a slight sign of interest, we then go on to explore small places where they might find such sustenance – binge watching old I Love Lucy or Friends Episodes, connecting deeply with an old friend, lavender oil, or an image of resting under the shelter of God’s wings.
I’ve been trying to follow my own prescription lately. I’ve been doubling up on those activities I know renew my spirit – exercise, a walk by the lake, quiet time for prayer and meditation, and yes cooking, lots of cooking! I’ve also found sustenance in surprising places.
On Inauguration Day I knew I needed to shift my focus from fear, bigoted arrogant language, and darkness to that which was life-giving. It would have been easy to listen to NPR on my drive in to work or to sneak a look at the day’s events while visiting patients. I chose to do neither. Instead, I decided the best way to face the day was to attend the Dr. Martin Luther King Humanitarian Awards, an event held annually at our hospital. As I heard the story of how five ordinary persons (all employees of the hospital) were effecting change in their communities and our world, the truth of Dr. King’s prophetic words hit home – “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
The five honored humanitarians received rousing applause for their good works. The crowd really came to life, however, when the children from the hospital day care paraded in, dressed in little purple choir robes, to sing a sweet, slightly off key tune about Dr. King’s dream. This unexpected dose of pure delight was what we all truly needed to be able to go back to our work as bearers of suffering and healers of bodies and souls.
In his essay The Meaning of Joy, theologian Paul Tillich challenges those who envision the Christian life as one purely of discipline, hard labor, and sacrifice. He reminds us that the Bible abounds in admonitions to rejoice. Joy, however, he goes on, is different than mere pleasure. Seeking pleasure for the sake of pleasure is our attempt to fill a place of emptiness, to avoid engaging with reality. In contrast, we find joy when we connect deeply with the abundance of creation, with others, and with the Source of Life itself (our God).
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” Fresh sprigs of rosemary and thyme to make the tomatoes in the Ribollita pop and the kale sing. Whichever metaphor you choose, the message is the same – to do God’s work of justice and mercy for the long haul we need to be fed. We need not deny ourselves rest, prayer, and yes, great joy to be disciples of Christ. AMEN.
Mark Bittman's Ribollita recipe from the New York Times.