One of my few “guilty pleasures” in my convalescence and time out from full time ministry is to watch episodes of meaningful food documentaries that take me to another land and another culture. Not being able to travel in my condition to these exotic locations, I ‘visit’ them via the cable television programmes and some of them end up teaching me more than mere culinary secrets and skills. Some of them impart a hidden doorway that also reveals similar truths to the spiritual life.
In one of the episodes of the series “Destination Flavours”, the host of the programme takes us to Osaka and a segment features a simple and unassuming soba noodle maker who has dedicated his life to his craft. For the uninitiated, soba is a noodle made of buckwheat flour, cooked in boiling water, chilled in an ice bath, and eaten with a dipping sauce that comprises flavour-imparting ingredients like kombu (a dried seaweed), dried sardines, dried bonito, soya sauce and honey. Though this humble chef had been doing this everyday for years, and is noted for his attention to detail to the extent of grinding his own buckwheat to ensure that he gets the exact type of flour that he is contented to work with, and aging his own sauces, he said in the interview that he has not reached perfection. When asked if he was trying to make the perfect soba, he humbly responded that yes, he was trying, but till the end of his life, he will not be able to reach perfection. Just as long as he keeps trying, continuing to work toward it, he will get closer. There was a palpable contentment in his response, and yet, something that was also very enduring in his humility. One doesn’t feel any tension or frustration in his admission of his inability to reach perfection. I couldn’t help but see in this quest something that we all can adapt and adopt in our own quest for spiritual perfection, which is sainthood.
The fact that the church never declares anyone a true living saint is testimony that our lives here on earth are always short of the perfection that we inwardly seek. Our weakened state of beings as humans who are prone to falling into sin and giving in to temptation means that there is no one time that we can ever be contented with ourselves. Even immediately after stepping out of the confessional, we will be facing seemingly facile temptations that makes us ‘miss the mark’ of perfection. Those of us who are more prone to habitual sin and are humble enough to constantly seek God’s forgiveness and mercy will readily see the truth in this “two steps forward and one step back” movement that marks the life of any serious saint ‘wannabe’.
Despite the difficulties that we face in climbing this mountain toward holiness and sainthood, we know that deep within, we cannot but plod on. It is not, as some would think, a futile and unavailing exercise. Why? Perhaps it is because if we are truly honest to ourselves, we know that deep within, we are made for a heavenly life, and that this desire for heavenly perfection will be our ultimate happiness. It is the soft whispers of God’s prevenient grace working in our lives, to use a theological reference. Yet, we also know that on this side of heaven, perfection is merely a concept, and something that we can only strive for, but never ever truly grasp or attain. The strange and alluring thing about grace is that the moment we think we have grasped it in our hands and gained control of it, we don’t. One wonders if lovers can compare this with what is often called the ‘thrill of the chase’.
In our most humble admission, we can only say that we are merely striving for that perfection, but are happy to do so. Just like the soba master and the perfection that he seeks. He knows that deep inside, he will never ever attain it, but that does not make it a futile or idle exercise. He has spent a large part of his life dedicated to his craft, making sure that each ingredient he uses, each measurement, each turn of his uncut dough, and the width of his hand-cut noodles are as perfect and exact as they can be, it will never reach perfection. The entire exercise each day becomes something which he merely puts his whole being into, and this is where the parallels between spirituality and something as seemingly facile as soba-making come so close.
If one can put in that much dedication and care for a craft that is as seemingly mundane and areligious as soba making, what more for our spiritual lives which have an end that is eternal? If only we put in as much seriousness in the different ‘ingredients’ that contribute to our lives, I am sure we will go far in our thirst and desire for sacredness resulting in being spiritually (and perhaps even physically) wholesome.
The ingredients of our spiritual life are what fill our everyday lives. How we react to the 6am alarm that calls us to face the breaking dawn; what is in our minds as we start that drive to work or take the public transport; the kind of internal comments that we make about the things we see around us; how we approach our fellow workers and family members; how we fill our God-given 24 hours in the day; the kind of things that we allow ourselves to be affected by; and of course, the judgments that we make throughout the day. Knowing that each of these elements contribute to our search for the attainment of heavenly perfection makes it clear that though we may desire perfection, we will most just as likely fall short of it. But we also know that we cannot just give up altogether because that will be denying our truest selves. That true self inside of each of us only rests when we finally rest in Him. St Augustine got that so right.
Just like the humble soba-maker who said that he was still trying to make the perfect soba even though he had been at his craft for years, so too should we as people striving toward sainthood also need to say that we are still trying - trying to get closer and closer to our ultimate aim but with less and less tension and frustration, and to never forget to give God thanks for each moment of grace for being able to make small steps in that ascent towards heaven.