Prof. Benson’s Sensates Practice
A Summer Praxis Reflection from Professor Christopher Benson
Earlier this summer I shared about one of my practices for Sabbath living. From the path of traditionalists (loving God through ritual and symbol), I am using a devotional book every day to formally observe Ordinary Time, the longest stretch of the Christian year between Pentecost and Advent.
From the path of sensates (loving God with the senses), I have been preparing food for guests in Colorado as I escape the infernal heat of Texas. For the purpose of this blog post, let me highlight the treat I made for our Fourth of July party. My students know that I – half-jokingly – lament Independence Day because I would sooner sing “God Save the Queen” than “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sooner eat shepherd’s pie with an English porter than a chili-cheese dog with a Coke, and sooner watch a tennis match on the emerald lawn of Wimbledon than a baseball game at Coors Fields – all because I fancy American life as a colony to the British crown. Nevertheless, in spite of my insufferable Anglophilia, I contributed to our family party by making red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting and blueberry toppings. Call it an homage to the red, white, and blue of the American flag, although forgive me for noting these colors also appear on the Union Jack.
I love cooking because it is an occasion to join creation’s praise of our Creator, as the Psalmist says: “All the earth worships you and sings praise to you” (66:4). And I take that “all” literally: the flour, which hails from the wheat fields of the Great Plains, worships God; the cocoa, which originates from trees grown in South America, sings praise to Him. When preparing the red velvet cupcakes, my senses were animated. I delighted in the odd geometry of chicken eggs, known as an “asymmetric tapered oval.” This evolutionary design reveals God’s care for “all creatures great and small”: not only would a spherical egg roll away from the nest, it would also discomfort the anatomy of the hen when pushing out the egg. The amber fragrance of pure vanilla extract, which combines warmth and sensuality, immediately gave me an olfactory flashback to baking with my mom at Christmastime. After frosting the cupcakes, I added blueberries for decoration, taking a few to sample: their squirt of juice tasted sweet and gently sour like a concentrated apple.
The sensory delights associated with food preparation remind me of what Flannery O’Connor wrote in her essay, “Catholic Novelists.”
If you shy away from sense experience, you will not be able to apprehend anything else in this world either, because every mystery that reaches the human mind, except in the final stages of contemplative prayer, does so by way of the senses. Christ didn’t redeem us by a direct intellectual act, but became incarnate in human form, and he speaks to us now through the mediation of the visible Church [or, dare I say, the kitchen].