URC :: Spirituality

broadening and deepening prayer
United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

Finding God in a wok: cooking as prayer

Mark Argent
4 August 2018

In one of my first experiences of Ignatian spirituality, I did an exercise which involved reflecting back on encounters with God in the preceding week. The big surprise of that experience came when I realised what was going on each evening when I cooked: almost by accident, it had become important as an experience of God.

This was my moment of discovering that it is possible to not recognise profound experiences of God because they don’t have the label “prayer” attached to them — which is another way of saying that all things have the potential to draw people to God, and so to act as prayer.

One aspect of this is the sensuality of cooking. Sight, smell, taste and hearing are all fully engaged. There is a Buddhist practice of “mindful walking” where you go for an unhurried walk, seeking to be deeply present to the sights, sounds and smells, allowing them to draw you into the moment. In responding to the ingredients, the cook is engaging in a very similar practice.

Cooking can’t be hurried. It’s possible to turn the fire up, but that only burns the food. Instead you are held in the space for the time it takes, responding to the food as it changes, sometimes waiting, sometimes moving very quickly. This is particularly the case with south-east Asian cooking where so much in done in a wok.

At a head level, cooking is one of the few places in modern society where we engage with nature. The tomatoes have come off a tomato plant, the chicken was once alive. It’s about co-operating with nature. Adding a few tomatoes to a fish curry has a very specific effect on the taste: I can’t work against nature by adding something else and hoping for the same effect. One of my habits is to buy a chicken, take off the cuts of meat and turn the rest into stock. Partly that’s the only way to get good chicken stock, but it is also to honour the gift of the chicken, drawing every part to its full potential.

There’s also something around the social, human aspect of food. As culture, food expresses a great deal, carrying deep-seated memories of where a person feels homed. That is partly about childhood, but also about the memories of meals shared, all evoked by smell and taste.

Cooking is also a very deep act of self-giving. For me it feels far more real to cook for someone I care about than take them to a restaurant. This is about very human experiences of loving and being loved. It’s unhealthy to understate the link between the sensual, the sexual and the spiritual. In incarnational language, it is to let God be present in the deep encounter between people — in who one cooks for, eats with, and in the memory of those from whom one learned to cook.

Perhaps this is the moment to slide into eucharistic language, but that needs to be done gently. People bring many experiences and understandings to the eucharist, and while it clearly is a meal, it is often so stylised as to be more symbolic than meal.

Yet liturgies talk of bread and wine as the work of human hands. There is a wholeness in letting them become the work of human hands — of baking the bread that will be used, and letting it become holy in the context of the celebration, much as the bread and wine at the last supper were, presumably, the ordinary bread and wine on the table.

But the real point is about being truly present in the act of cooking, so that it draws one into an experience of God — experienced directly, and in others.