Searching for a leaking oil cask deep in the hold of Captain Ahab’s Pequod, the ship’s crew begins to transfer the contents of the hull up to the deck—stores of food, casks of water, coils of rope, packets of tools, and barrel after barrel of whale oil—until all that was stored in the hull of the ship is massed and piled about on the overcrowded deck. With such a transference of weight, the precariously balanced ship reels and rolls about much like an empty bottle tossed into the sea. Seeing this, Ishmael—the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick—describes the ship thus: “Topheavy was the ship as a dinnerless student with all Aristotle in his head. Well was it that the Typhoons did not visit them then.”
It’s an unexpected, striking description, and one that likely applies to many who open the pages of Melville’s novel (though, seeing that this passage comes in Chapter 110, one wonders how many of those students do, in fact, get far enough in the book to discover themselves in its pages). Cynicism aside, however, the passage recalls for us an important truth about ourselves; ungracefully translated from Melvillian it tells us, “Eat something, you fool, or you’ll get yourself in trouble.” Everyone knows the experience of having terrible moods or all sorts of perceived crises disappear after doing something as simple as eating lunch.
The simile also holds true when applied to our spiritual state. We might be full of food, but our souls are hungering and thirsting for God. We can easily notice the effects of this spiritual hunger, but we can also fail to connect the symptom with its cause, and so the condition can go untreated unless we are intentional about maintaining a prayer life.
Of course, the greatest way in which we are fed by God is the Eucharist. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus makes the ineffable gift of Himself to us under the aspects of bread and wine. A prayer about the Blessed Sacrament, written by St. Thomas Aquinas, meditates on this perfect nourishment: “O sacred banquet, in which Christ becomes our food, the memory of His passion is celebrated, the soul is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”
Whether we admit it, we need God desperately: Psalm 63 begins, “O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water.” We need to be connected to God even more than we need food. Just as we make time for meals throughout the day, so should we be diligent about making time for God, setting aside some minutes in which we can be with Him and receive His quiet nourishment. Without being continually sustained through prayer and the sacraments, our souls quickly begin to suffer, just as our bodies would waste away if we were to stop eating.
It’s encouraging to realize that it is God who initiates our encounter with Him. Using our various afflictions, desires, and hungers as a means to drawing us back, the Father reaches out to us, seeking to feed us: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Like Leaven in the Dough