When I was small, I attended an Italian preschool run by Italian Nuns. Despite the fact that is has been well over 34 years since I ran around in my little pastel smock, giggling and speaking Italian to my little friends on the playground, I distinctly remember several snapshot moments from my days immersed in another culture, speaking another language, as if it were my native tongue.
Of all the memories of my time in the care of those Nuns, the one that my sister and I can sort of laugh about now, as we recall it with razor-sharp clarity, is the experience of being force-fed some variety of foul smelling cheese. And when I say “force-fed” I do not mean the kind of coercion American mother’s might practice, by which a child is relegated to remain at the table until their dinner is eaten.
When I say “force-fed” what I am talking about here is having cheese forced into one’s mouth, while having one’s nose plugged, and being held in such a state until one swallows purely out of the sheer necessity to breathe. Clearly, despite being a mere four years old at the time of said incident, I distinctly remember the experience as if it had occurred last night. When I say we laugh about this incident, the laughter is not the kind that reflects the humor of the situation, but more the horror of it. We shake our heads in wonder at the differences between cultures, and acceptable child-rearing practices.
Even so, despite this terrible experience, my memories of my time in this preschool are tender ones, because where the Nuns failed at the lunch table, they thrived in so many other ways. In their firmness, we were loved. They cared deeply for us.
I recall with relative clarity, the crafts we made using all manner of materials, the way the Sisters encouraged creativity, balancing their rigidity with our wild excitement over lumps of modeling clay and tempera paints. I remember the time one of the Nuns rescued a bird who had mistakenly flown full-bore into one of the large plate windows, knocking itself senseless. Cupping it tenderly in her hands, she carried it around to us, inviting us all have a good look at it, as it lay dazed and limp in her weathered hands.
These women loved us. They loved God’s creatures. They cared for our souls, despite the horrors that may have occurred around the lunch table. Mangiare, (eat), they insisted, with their fingertips pressed together, mimicking a closed mouth. For the Nun’s, having us eat was a requirement, not an invitation.
Scarred a bit by the stinky-cheese-force-feeding incident of my youth, my own methods for getting my children to eat has looked nothing like nose-holding. The table is a place of invitation. Forced obedience isn’t really obedience, is it?
I’ve been thinking about this as it relates to walking with God and other issues of faith. The gospel invites us by way of freedom, not force. God has good things for us, but always, we have the choice to open our mouths, to receive more or less of Him. Not without consequence, though. Those who refuse to eat will starve. When we choose to fill ourselves with junk, our body fails to thrive.
Jesus calls Himself the Bread of Life, and the Living Water. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. They said to him, sir give us this bread always. (John 6:33-34)
With God, it’s always by invitation rather than by force. Take, eat, this is my body offered for you, (Luke 22:19). “Tell those who are invited, see I have prepared my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready…”(Matthew 22:4)
I believe that the Sisters had our best interest at heart, despite their unorthodox methods for getting us to accept the invitation to try something new, something foreign to us. Of course, God has our best interest at heart–He is most interested in our heart. But He does not force us. He woos us with His patience and generosity. He whispers to us in grace and with mercy. He offers Himself, inviting us to bring our hunger to His table.
I wonder, where do we see His invitation to us today? Where is His invitation in our memories of our other table experiences? And who among us can we extend this invitation to? Who among us is hungry?