By H. Boone Porter
The season of Lent is traditionally devoted to reflection on our background, our past history, our roots, as individuals, as members of the human race, as members of the new Israel of God. Mid-Lent Sunday is associated with the theme of deliverance, liberation, and refreshment along the way. What does refreshment mean?
For animals, food, warmth, or good drinking water are things promptly enjoyed, but apparently without reflection or thought as to their meaning. Human beings, on the other hand, have to reflect even about the basic necessities of life, since unless we think, we cannot get what we need to survive. Animals are either guided to food by instinct, or by the example of their parents. They continue to eat such food unhesitatingly from the day they are weaned until the day they die. Similarly, each species has its way of finding places to sleep, rear its young, and so forth. We humans have no such natural habitat.
For our ancient meat-eating ancestors, some sort of meditation, speculation, and imaginative thought were part of life. Hunting is a slow process, especially with primitive implements. The hunter must try to understand the animal, even to identify with it, in his effort to get the “secret” of why animals, birds, and fishes are sometimes so plentiful and sometimes cannot be found at all. Hunters do not usually despise the creatures they kill; on the contrary they often love and admire them. Primitive hunters, like modern ones, often seek to honor their game by displaying antlers, by depicting animals in pictures, telling stories about them, and so forth.
One of the interesting things about Northern Alaska today is the wonderful stories both the Eskimos and the Indians tell about communications between people and animals, animals coming in response to prayers, and so forth. The Eskimo city of Point Hope, Alaska, the oldest city of North America (estimated age, 4,000 years), is today mainly Episcopalian. But the people are proud of maintaining, in more or less Christian form, their ancient ceremonies relating to the whales which they catch each spring for their food. After a whale has been harpooned form an open boat in the Bering Sea, it is towed to shore and there is an elaborate procedure for dividing portions of the meat, and for replacing the whale’s skull in the sea.
Several years ago, a decapitated whale washed ashore at the New England island where my family was spending the summer. My brother-in-law proposed that we extract some of the huge ribs and vertebrates as souvenirs. We worked for days, laboriously cutting through the deteriorating carcass — which did not smell like a perfume factory — until our objective was achieved. The next winter I was in Alaska and had the privilege of hearing one of the veteran whalers of Point Hope describe the securing of a whale and bringing it ashore. Then he looked up at me and asked, “Have you ever cut up a whale?”
With immense satisfaction I could respond, “Sure, I’ve cut up a whale. My brother-in-law and I cut up a whale last summer.”
“Then you know what I’m talking about,” he replied. His smile of approval repaid me for all that ghastly operation the summer before.
Of course the Eskimos are not seeking souvenirs, but essential food for the months ahead. All of it is ingeniously processed and consumed in many ways. Let it here be recorded that the blubber which they cure and age is one of the most delicious delicacies to be found anywhere.
Eskimos eat some of the meat raw; this is what the word Eskimo means (they call themselves Inuit, “The People”). Under most circumstances, however, human beings have found it necessary to cook their food. Fire has done more than roast our meat. It has brought us together, given us light and warmth, encouraged us to talk and watch each others’ facial expressions, to behave like human beings.
Much the same can be said of vegetable food. We easily eat an apple — the product of centuries of selective breeding and human introduction (together with the necessary honeybee) into different lands. Compare an apple with its primitive cousin, the seed-filled haw of the hawthorn bush, and you will see what problems primitive people had, even during those few weeks each year when wild fruits and berries were available. How long did it take to discover which plants had edible roots or leaves? How many died of poisoning before it was clearly understood that the stalk, rather than the leaf, of rhubarb is to be eaten?
When primitive people succeeded from time to time in acquiring a good amount of food, it obviously meant more than a full stomach. It was a victory; it was a defeat of the fear and the insecurity which normally dogged them. It was a sign that their luck was good, not bad; that the knowledge people had was true, not false; that their skill and strength were effective, not futile. It meant that they were winning, not losing in the battle for life. Primitive people evidently realized that it meant still more than this. The acquisition of food required more than human skill. The forces of life had to be beneficent. The world had somehow to produce what man received.
The good things of life are in some sense a gift. They cause not simply pleasure, but gratitude. Food brought not simply nourishment to the body, but relief to the mind, security, a sense of being properly related to the flow of life. Modern people who, on rare occasions, can make a meal of food they have themselves caught or raised, have some small idea of what this means.
If ordinary food can mean so much, how much more should it mean to us to come to him who said:
He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life: and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. (St. John 6:54-55.)
The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in our March 5, 1978 issue.