I have been on a spiritual journey for almost twenty-five years. When I was young, I studied different religions, made personal pilgrimages and read voraciously – all in an effort to draw closer to God. Yet, everything I learnt could have been condensed into one simple principle – service to mankind. I was recently reminded of this consummate truth in Pope Francis’s favourite film – Babette’s Feast.
The film centres on two elderly sisters, serving an aging community in a remote Danish village, where austerity and abstinence are upheld as pillars of piousness. The sisters spend their days preparing frugal meals and holding ritualistic prayer services for villagers, who secretly harbour enmities against each other. One day a refugee (Babette) arrives at the sisters’ doorstep seeking work. The sisters can’t afford a housekeeper, so Babette offers to work for free and spends fourteen years in service, before unexpectedly winning 10,000 francs in a lottery. Instead of returning to her homeland, Babette decides to use the money to cook a lavish and opulent feast for the villagers. She orders the best cuts of meat, finest wines and a cornucopia of fresh fruits and delicacies to prepare a sumptuous banquet. Her efforts are rewarded by the eruption of unbridled joy amongst the villagers, who forgive past transgressions and renew their friendships.
Like all masterpieces, the film is resplendent with layers of rich meaning, including the depiction of enjoyment rather than asceticism, as a commendable expression of faith. However, what resonated most with me was Babette’s selflessness. As the family chef, I hugely related to her desire to produce exquisite dishes as an expression of love, but this was an epiphany, which arrived gradually in my life. At first, preparing family meals seemed a thankless task and not the best use of my time. The ingredients had to be sourced from various outlets (to ensure quality and freshness) and slaving in a hot kitchen for hours, was often a depressing and exhausting business.
However, over time my culinary skills began to improve, as did my gratification, when I witnessed the family delight in devouring my creations. Suddenly, sourcing the ingredients became a labour of love as I weaved through crowded markets, carefully handpicking each item, with the adulation of last night’s dinner still ringing in my ears. I began to go about my work with a delicious purpose, tackling each task with surgical precision, as I juggled scalding pans and roasting ovens, in the comforting knowledge that my efforts would be recognised as a testament of love. The joy was no longer theirs. It was mine.
Now I’m older (and wiser), I reflect on my young self with amusement. I was so zealous back then – determined to find God by pursuing my own path and disregarding childhood teachings. However, ironically my journey brought me back to where it had begun. What my intellectual thirst for knowledge had been unable to teach me was something my parents had demonstrated all along; that serving God was simply about serving others. There was no need to make it more complicated than that.