Wineskins Archive

February 6, 2014

Grace, Loss and Chocolate Sauce (Jan-Feb 2001)

Filed under: — @ 2:00 am and

by Jane Montgomery Gibson
January – February, 2001

Be patient with all that is unsolved in your heart.Rainer Maria Rilke

Here’s the article I intended to write. I think it could have been very moving:

It’s tempting to think that someone saw the acclaimed Mexican movie Like Water for Chocolate and said, “Wait. The French are the world’s greatest lovers of food, not the Mexicans, for pity’s sake. Let’s do a French version. And who has a greater claim to fine chocolate than the French? Forget the water. Let’s call it Chocolat.” They did. But it proves to be a very bittersweet confection for the Christian movie-goer, who will find it a tired old indictment of the self-righteous Sin Police among us. Yes, the Pharisee is ever with us, we know, we know.

To be fair to the movie, it portrays the village’s new priest as a young, timid admirer of American rock ‘n’ roll who would be preaching kindly messages of Christ’s love if not for the stern and controlling Count whose family had ruled the region probably since feudal times. It’s not the Church; it’s just one element within it, the movie suggests. And we can fix that. Just take one taste of this amazing piece of Mayan chocolate mixed with secret herbs and chili powder ….

It is a miserable state of mind to have a few things to desire and many things to fear.Sir Francis Bacon

Chocolat has a heavy-handed symbolism that shouldn’t work, but it does, on some level. The little French village of the opening scenes is a beautiful but austere place, an ancient stone settlement by a river, built around a church. It is a bleak winter day when a woman and little girl trudge up the mountainside into town, a Sunday morning when all the townspeople are in church. The little figures in their red velvet capes make a striking image: passion has arrived to free the frozen. Vienne and her little girl are wayfarers blown in by the north wind, outcasts who come to set up a chocolaterie at the most importunate moment, the beginning of the Lenten season.

Juliette Binoche is Vienne, a beautiful and soft-spoken woman who is raising her daughter to “thicken your skin to hints and hurts, be allergic to the soul scrapers,” as poet Ann Darr advised. And she does the good deeds that villagers can’t seem to accomplish by themselves and for themselves with her compassionate embracing of their outcasts and unsavory characters. The villagers have been living in the confines of a rigid caste system and an unforgiving church, with few things to desire and many things to fear.

Vienne is the quintessential feminist, defying the local patriarchy, helping and healing a battered woman considered crazy by the rest of the town, giving her shelter and teaching her the confectioner trade – she is tailor-made to the ideal standards of all that modern woman should do to free her oppressed society.

And we shift uneasily in our chairs because it’s not just propaganda. This self-described pagan woman who makes chocolate pre-Columbian idols for her shop window and plans a festival to rival the Easter Sunday celebration has some very good points; she does what the Christians should be doing. She tries to undo the harm the Christians have done or at least allowed. It’s a small consolation that the townsfolk eventually respond kindly to her. Everything in us, the Christians in the audience, should be protesting: it shouldn’t be the pagan who extends the love of Christ. We have lost much credibility in this world.

May God keep us from single vision.William Blake

Well, the movie tells us, your problem is that you are too exclusive, too rigid and unwilling to embrace the wonderful jos of life and extend your acceptance to those different from you. Lighten up. Loosen up. Be tolerant.

Ah! And there’s the rub, as the Bard would say. The real problem is how to extend God’s grace to those who don’t want it and live before them in such a way that they eventually will. Or said another way, how to love and be loving and at the same time intolerant. To have the single vision of Christ before us and his kingdom’s message, but to see all that such a vision encompasses. We have done so well as soul scrapers and defenders of the faith that we don’t quite know how to do the more difficult thing of living joyfully but not sinfully.

The worst sin – perhaps the only sin – passion can commit is to be joyless.Dorothy L. Sayers

At first glance, that seems to be the guiding heresy of our age, the credo that has led us into untold miseries. No, Dorothy, I’d say that Hitler’s passion for purity was indeed joyless but that wasn’t quite his worst sin. On the other hand, perhaps this is the problem with our passion for Christ and for his church, for the life we are called to lead within it and in the world around it. We let it seem joyless ….

That’s the article I had intended to write; I still think it’s a good one. But then David Hall came to town to visit his parents. David is one of my heroes; he runs Manna International on a shoestring budget with a cadre of volunteers who help founder / director Kevin McFarland realize his dream of a Church of Christ organization to help the poor around the world. The video David recently did for fundraising and awareness campaigns was a riveting ten minutes of pain and passion and joy that poured from our television screen into our home and our hearts. We watched the faces of children from pictures he’d taken on journeys to countries in crises of poverty and conflict. Some were sweet and friendly; others hostile and guarded. Some just looked tired. Scared. Hungry, always hungry. And suddenly, I thought “Chocolate. Indeed. Let ’em eat chocolate.”

Here I’d been absorbed in processing a movie experience that had engaged my intellect, thinking of all the metaphors the movie employed and countering its accusations with answers … while children were dying.

We are not different nor alike. But each strange in his leather body sealed in skin and reaching out clumsy hands …Marge Piercy

My little girl watched the video several times as I was searching for a capella music to offer David as a substitute to his lovely and haunting soundtrack. She read aloud the words that occasionally flashed on the screen, facts and figures concerning the lack of clean water and death rates worldwide. For hours and then for several days after that she would look at me in wonder and say, “One … two. A child died. One … two. A child died ….” She counted her hours by the number of children who would die somewhere around the world. I would look at the computer screen where I’d left my article, awaiting an ending. I felt like a modern-day Marie Antoinette, with flippant “let them eat chocolate” responses to a dying world, waiting as we couch our response to post-Modern critics of Christianity.

I once wrote David Hall an impoassioned letter thanking him for everything he does, things, I wish I had the courage and time and resources to do. I was like a sentimental drunk, crying with remorse and regret for all the money I’d wasted throughout my lifetime, all the effort I’d put into useless causes and self-entertainment. And then, of course, like James’ man who looks into a mirror and turns away to forget what “manner of man he was,” I went back to my life. To tell the truth, I don’t quite know how to restructure my life in the radical way I want, to make it simple and sacrificial and visible surrendered. We sponsor a little girl in the Dominican Republic thorugh Compassion International, we take annual mission trips to Mexico, we do this, we do that. Sometimes it seems so pitifully little.

I don’t want to be like Oskar Schindler at the end of “Schindler’s List,” recoiling in horror at the imagined sight of so many people I could have saved and didn’t. What if every outfit in my closet represents a child that died from starvation? Truly, so many things go “unsolved” in my heart. I alternate between being impatient and complacent, self-disgusted and self-satisfied. Grace keeps me reaching, struggling for the balance.

It is going to be a daily struggle, one that Jesus will have to direct because I’m not wise or strong enough. He is, though. He can make me an open-handed giver and doer who manages my blessings in ways that bless others.

But joy? Passion? Chocolat? Well, yes. That’s it. We need to serve the poorest of the poor, do everything we saw Jesus do and not worry about what the world thinks of the church or about how to defend our particular beliefs so much. We practice them and le the world be drawn to us as they were to Jesus. It isn’t Vienne who has the secret to rekindling of passions of living. The Church should be the chocolaterie par excellence.

You think that’s too frivolous a thing to say? Perhaps it is. But one more story:

Last spring a small group of our Missions Committee went to Honduras, where a man named George Hall has begun a preacher training school in which the students also learn a trade and are set up in business after graduation. The wives of the students live in the poorest part of El Progreso with their children, hanging on as best they can while their husbands study all day and campaign on weekends. We arranged a big pizza party for them, most of whom had never even seen pizza. We hauled them to the pizza place in the back of two pickups; they acted as if they had stepped into a world with the wonders of Disneyland. On the small playground attached to the building the children played with a delight unimaginable to our McDonald’s-weary eyes. When we brought big bags of candy and they saw that we were going to pass it out to them, they ran and sat at the picnic tables to wait. They watched as we counted out pieces to each of them in piles on the tables. They even tried to give pieces back if they had accidentally gotten more than the others around them. We couldn’t believe it.

My friend Mickey put a Tootsie Roll in front of a little boy who gazed at it in sheer rapture. The child lifted a grimy and glowing face up in delight, and with eyes squeezed tightly shut, said, “CHO-CO-LA-TE!” in Spanish. My friend Donna, holding the bag of candy, described the scene and added, “I’ve never in all my life seen such joy on a little boy’s face!” It was more than that, of course, that we were giving. We were teaching his father, feeding his family and working for his future. But we also gave him chocolate, and sometimes that’s what a person needs the most. Our clumsy hands did well that day; Jesus was glorified. So there, Vienne. We can do it, and better than anyone. The very Inventor of Chocolate does it through us. When we let Him.Wineskins Magazine

Jane Montgomery Gibson


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