The Potluck

Yesterday morning, I went to the Cambridge Zen Center to practice and give teaching interviews, stopping on my way to photograph David Fichter’s “The Potluck,” a bright, larger-than-life mural depicting a happy gathering of all ages and races sharing an abundant meal. Yesterday was a gorgeous day—sunny and not too warm—so it would have been perfect for either a picnic or potluck, but instead, I started the morning by going to the Zen Center, where I spent a half hour quietly contemplating the Dharma room floor before secreting myself in the interview room, where I met individually with a handful of fellow meditators, one after another, each bringing some sort of question: a potluck of interactions, each presenting its own possibilities.

Dharma room

After I’d gotten home from the Zen Center, J and I took the T downtown, where we walked to the North End for Saint Anthony’s Feast: a whole other kind of potluck. Instead of the quiet minimalism of the Zen Center Dharma room, in the North End we encountered the pomp and camaraderie of an Old World religious festival, a marching band accompanying a group of men who carried a statue of Saint Anthony through the streets, stopping (and even raising the statue to second-floor level) when anyone wanted to pin money to the ribbons that adorned it.

Offerings

Although most of us easily understand the pomp and protocol of a picnic or potluck, Catholic festivals can be a bit more mystifying to the uninitiated. Both J and I are Italian and were raised as Catholics, so we don’t raise an eyebrow when we see colorful saint statues decorated and adorned…but I can imagine the consternation and even concern that people from other religious backgrounds might feel when they see folks in the North End apparently worshipping or even “bribing” idol-like statues with kisses and cash.

Dollar-pinned ribbons for Saint Anthony

When I see the obvious reverence that attendees at Saint Anthony’s and other North End feasts display toward these saints, though, I see tradition, not idolatry. Italians in Boston’s North End have been celebrating Saint Anthony’s Feast for nearly a century, continuing a festive tradition they carried with them from their homeland. Saint Anthony’s Feast might not match the kind of picnic or potluck you see in mainstream America, but it does suit North End tastes and traditions.

Saint Anthony pinned with dollars

America is often compared to a melting pot, but that metaphor is all wrong. When you toss (and then melt) disparate cuisines in a pot, what you end up with is a homogenous mush, the various tastes and textures all pureeing to gray. America isn’t a melting pot but a smorgasbord—a potluck—where each community offers something characteristic to their own tradition, even if “my” cuisine doesn’t perfectly match “yours.”

Italian pastries

At a potluck, everyone contributes something, and everyone shares…but at a potluck, you have the opportunity to pick and choose, not every plate offering something for every palate. Do you prefer a quiet morning spent meditating in the shadow of a gold guy? We have that. Do you prefer a festive afternoon feasting among confetti and cannoli? We have that, too. Whether you stick with familiar foods or explore something new, you can help yourself to whatever you’d like, then come back for seconds. There’s plenty for everyone, and something to satisfy every taste.

Dipped

As much as meditating at the Zen Center and feasting in the North End might seem like opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum, I find a lot of ways that Buddhism and Catholicism complement one another. Both Buddhisim and Catholicism offer a rich iconography of visual images: when newcomers come to the Zen Center, for instance, I make clear that the Buddha sitting at the head of the Dharma room isn’t a god to be worshiped but a visual representation of the clear, pure nature we all possess. Similarly, the money that festival-goers pin to statues of Saint Anthony or Saint Lucy aren’t idolatrous bribes: they’re expressions of gratitude and hope. A Catholic festival like Saint Anthony’s Feast suggests that if we make a point to be generous with saints, perhaps those saints will in turn be generous with blessings.

Saint Anthony shrine

Both feasts and potlucks, after all, are celebrations of abundance: there’s enough for everyone to eat, enjoy, and come back for seconds. On a gorgeous August Sunday, I can’t think of a better way to spend the day.

Click here for more photos from Saint Anthony’s Feast, which J and I had first visited in August of 2007…or click here for more photos of David Fichter’s “The Potluck,” which I’ve blogged in May of 2009 and February of 2011. Enjoy!

Devotion

This week’s Photo Friday theme is Religion, which gives me good reason to re-post one of my favorite photos from last summer’s Saint Anthony’s Feast in Boston’s North End.

Enshrined

I’m usually shy about taking (much less posting) pictures of strangers, but I love the look of adoration in this woman’s eyes as she hangs a dollar-pinned scapular on a statue of St. Anthony. That look, I originally noted, “says everything you need to know about the spirituality of Italian-American festivals,” and it also says a lot about religion in general. Religion is the act of holding out hope in the face of both doubt and the impossible, repeating the rituals of those who have walked before you, joining with others who share your devotion, and daring to stand by your beliefs regardless of who is watching. That combination of hope, practice, fellowship, and testimony lies at the heart of all religions and is a human impulse to be cherished: the good within us seeking the good outside.

Processing

“It’s easy,” I wrote last August, “to scoff at someone else’s beliefs, seeing another’s spirituality as nothing more than superstition: my favorite wry definition of the word ‘cult,’ in fact, is ‘The house of worship down the street from yours.'” Whether we see ourselves as “religious,” we all have things we individually adore, and we all (presumably) have had moments of sharing that adoration with other, like-minded folks. The emotions of excitement, camaraderie, and pride sports fans feel at a game are expressions of a secular religion, sport serving as a spectacle around which fervent fans from both sides gather to hail the virtues of athletic excellence, teamwork, and personal sacrifice. Whether you are inspired by athletes, musicians, artists, actors, or writers, you too have presumably experienced moments of transcendence when you’ve gathered with like-minded devotees to share simple wonder, the performance of a perfect poem, stunning symphony, or beautiful ballet being enough to transport you for an ecstatic moment in time.

You might not call these “religion” but simply “amazement.” But what else is religion but the shared experience of awe?

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