Food for thought: a mindful Ignatian approach to diet - Madonna Magazine

Food for thought: a mindful Ignatian approach to diet

James O'Brien 15 November 2019

Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s guidelines for eating and drinking.

Our global culture loves its food and drink. TV shows such as Masterchef sensationalise a competition for the best possible meal, three hosts sitting in judgment.

Within the broader culture, cafes, pubs and restaurants populate Australia with many food choices available. These are gathering points for young and old, as baristas, chefs, bar attendants and waitstaff offer hospitality to people throughout the day.

We expect an abundance of food, coffee and alcohol at commemorative celebrations but also at more routine activities. Every day is a feast day.

We could do well to stop to consider whether our current approach to food and drink is a balanced one, and one which deserves continued unreflective support.

Meals no longer communal

On another level a cultural shift has happened where for many people meals are no longer communal events. Apartment living has spread across our cities, and single-person dwellings are more common.

No matter the living situation, comfort eating is sometimes used to assuage the pain when people are lonely, isolated or depressed.

We need to encourage people to gather for communal moments when we stop and spend time together. It’s sometimes not easy to find our tribe and engage with others, but this is a call for today.

The broader picture

There is a broader social and ecological milieu for our eating and drinking. As we go to a local cafe or restaurant, attending to a meal or coffee in the presence of friends and strangers alike, there are those who barely subsist outside the reach of our tables.

Furthermore, today our common home cries out for us to care for its fragile ecosystems, so perhaps our entrenched patterns of consumption need to be held in balance with our new ecological consciousness.

The earth’s own liberation needs some reconciliation with our insatiable desire and appetite for more.

Mindful eating

Within this context, it’s worth noting that Saint Ignatius of Loyola offers us a guide to mindful eating within his Spiritual Exercises.

St Ignatius’ guidelines help us to deepen our reverence for God at our tables. His intentional approach brings together the inner life and the outer life, offering practical wisdom for an age of food and drink on demand.

The aim is to help us prepare our daily habits for a better future.

  1. When we are eating alone, we may do well to reflect on Jesus and his apostles at table. We may imitate Jesus as he eats and drinks, noticing his focus on the senses, and how he eats in time with the conversation. This is an aid to a more contemplative attitude in my eating.
  2. Whether we are looking at our fridge, supermarket aisles, cafe menus, or a delivery-based food app on our phones, we are beset by immediate access to an abundance of options. Ignatius counsels discipline and planning around what we choose to eat, and keeping to appropriate portions. A balanced amount of food will support a vibrant inner life and ensure I have what strength and health I need for my outer life.
  3. In terms of our relationship to certain foods, Ignatius invites us to seek out fewer ‘delicacies’, and move toward a greater focus on nutritional staples. As regards beverages such as beer, soft-drink, coffee, milk or wine, he encourages us to enjoy these in moderation (‘what is helpful’) and avoid excess (‘what is harmful’).
  1. If my focus at meals turns to the food itself, the invitation is to become ever more attentive, savouring each bite slowly. We could meditate on that famous line from scripture ‘taste and see the goodness of the Lord’ (Psalm 34:8) or listen closely to music.

Other considerations

In time, we may consider a few additional questions to enjoy a more mindful approach to diet.

  • How did that meal make me feel?
  • Am I aware how the food came to be at my table? (pesticide use, harvesting, processing, food miles).
  • What ingredients make for the best meal? (Company/conversation, vegetable content, spices).
  • How do I cultivate a balanced diet and/or exercise restraint in a world of fast food and excess?
  • Am I aware of food wastage?
  • What would my bin look like if I composted, recycled or bought from bulk-food stores?
  • Who could I invite to share a meal with me today?

Attend to our senses

To the people of a culture that can encourage mindless eating, Ignatius invites us to a more mindful practice.

These habits may help us attend to our senses more, and engage in a life where our eating and drinking is governed by a renewed sense of awareness. As Paul Coutinho SJ writes, ‘I learned from Ignatius that the food that transforms my life is the food I relish.’