The Liturgy of the Board

Continuing to read Bed and Board: Plain Talk about Marriage by Robert Farrar Capon

Here’s a section from the chapter titled “Board.” It struck me especially this week as we sat down to our Thanksgiving dinner.

The table enters the exchange of the family exactly as the stage enters into the ballet: as a thing, as itself, by being faithful to its own mute and stubborn materiality. It is the floor that makes possible the marvelous leap of grace; it is also the floor that punishes the less than marvelous one with disgrace. The table can make or break us. It has its own laws and will not change. Food and litter will lie upon it; fair speech and venom will pour across it; it will be the scene of manners or meanness, the place of charity or the wall of division, depending. Depending on what is done with it or at it and about it. But whatever is done, however it enters, it will allow only the possible, not the ideal. No one has ever created the Board by fiat. God himself spread his table, but Judas sat down at it…. The Board is a union of thing and persons; what it becomes depends on how the thing is dealt with by the persons.

There is one result, however, which will be produced automatically: The Board will always give birth to liturgy. I don’t mean specifically religious liturgy here. I mean liturgy in the old sense that the word had before Christians picked it up. In that sense, liturgy is not simply a function of religion but an inevitable feature of the life of the city. The Greeks were, I think, the first to define it. In the small city-state of antiquity, each citizen was assigned a portion of the material work of the city as his personal responsibility: the repair of so many feet of wall, for example, or the construction of so many yards of drainage facility. The word they used for this assignment was leitourgia. They saw that the community of life meant community in things, and that unless the citizens joined in the doing of the things, the city could not thrive. Each was to have his peculiar liturgy; but it was to be his as a member of the body politic, not on the basis of his private tastes.

The Church needs only priest, people, table, bread and wine; the union of those remains the taproot of all liturgy. So also with the family. Parents and children, table and food are the fundamental pieces. Given these, there will develop, with absolute inevitability, a way of doing business native to that Board and its distinctive materialities. “At our house, we always have icebox cake on Daddy’s birthday.” That is genuine liturgy. The key to the true rationale is the phrase “We always do. . . .” The test of its germaneness is not its conformity to some abstract standard of perfection, but simply whether it constitutes an honest doing of the work of the city with the materials at hand. Liturgy is a local matter: The Church has had almost as many liturgies as she has had altars. . . . And since the family is so utterly local a proposition, its truest liturgies will be home-grown— and very often peculiar, in both senses of the word. They will be wordy or brief, elaborate or plain, high or low, according to the tastes and the talents of the families that make them. But their constant feature is that they will never fail to be made. The Table is simply the kind of thing that brings them forth.

And that brings up the second point about the materiality of the table. It is not only a thing, it is a place. The Board is geography even more obviously than the Bed is. It is the principal territory of the family as a whole. And it is the guarantee that the household is a real society and not a legal fiction; all true societies are defined geographically. They are unities of place, not of interest; they are bodies, not clubs. The parish, the village, the city, the nation are precisely territorial entities.

Our roots go down around this board; all our sowing was in one bed, and all but myself have grown from the soil that is my wife. From Bed and Womb to Breast and Board, we are one by origin and by place; geography is our first unity.

The Board, then, stands as the published map of the family. The bed was our place of being for only minutes; the womb and the breast for no more than months; but the table is our territory literally for years. It is the great clue to the mystery of being. We have spring tom local and common roots, but we have grown into discreetness and separateness, and now we sit around this table. . . . We began as pieces of a piece, common matter, fragmented, but we are here because we have been invited to dance our discreteness into the mutuality of God himself. From a body we came into bodies; it is this table that now draws us into the Body that shall be. From a mother, we were born into isolation, it is the table that be dings now to lift us into Jerusalem, the mother of us all.

As I said, this seems entirely appropriate a chapter to read during the week of Thanksgiving. This year we had it at our house for the first time since Bella was a baby. Usually my sister-in-law hosts us, but this year she had knee surgery. I rather enjoy cooking up a traditional Thanksgiving dinner when I don’t have a baby to juggle. As much as I enjoy having Thanksgiving with the extended family, it’s also a treat to plan the menu according to my own particular tastes to include all my own favorites– though as to that I actually forgot a few things. And so as I read this what he says about liturgy really rang true. Thanksgiving is a national holiday and yet each family has its own peculiar liturgy, the things that “we always do.”

And it was so very fun to sit down in the middle of the day to a beautifully set table with tablecloth and runner and cloth napkins and candles. Though the children asked, “Why are we doing this? Why are we having dinner so early? Why is the table so fancy?” And it made me think of the liturgy of Passover, the ritual questions.

But I have to ponder a little harder to see the liturgy of a weeknight dinner. We start with grace but then after that it honestly seems to be a free for all. There’s scant ceremony and almost no formality. Very little that we “always do” comes to mind. Except that we always do eat dinner. And Ben always does complain that he doesn’t like anything on the table. And Bella always does tip her chair to the side. And Anthony always does forget that if he wants milk he needs to ask and not whine. So we do have our little litanies and rubrics. Unwritten, but followed as if to the letter every time.

Now we enter the season of Advent, which I love precisely because there are so many little rituals. The Advent wreath and the lighting of the candles and the singing of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The children know. They remember. They recounted it all to me on Wednesday as we did our Thanksgiving baking. In that way Advent is almost better than the Christmas season where I always flounder. I want to keep celebrating, but I don’t have a ritual to follow. There is no homely liturgy for keeping Christmas for the whole season. And this is why Lent is such a slog, no candles, no way to mark off the forty days. Oh there are cute crafty things that people do to mark the time, but they don’t feel liturgical to me in the same way the Advent wreath does. Maybe just because they aren’t things that I always did as a child.

2 Responses to The Liturgy of the Board

  1. Jenny December 1, 2014 at 3:44 pm #

    “Our roots go down around this board; all our sowing was in one bed, and all but myself have grown from the soil that is my wife.”

    This is beautiful and resonant. It is a silly thing, but it always feels bittersweet to me when the baby starts table food. Up to that moment, the baby has been entirely nourished from my flesh and then after, that isn’t true anymore.

    • Melanie Bettinelli December 2, 2014 at 12:43 am #

      Isn’t it lovely? I agree about how bittersweet that moment is. As much of a pain as it was, part of me was sort of happy Anthony wasn’t much interested in solid food until about nine months. I kept looking at the gigantic bulk of him and thinking: I did that! All by myself!

      It’s funny but one Amazon review said simply that this book was misogynistic and an offense against women. I wonder how big a chip you have to have on your shoulder to take passages like this as hateful toward women.

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