Babettes Feast: The Generosity of God
by Robert A. Flanagan
Jacob's Well, Spring/Summer, 1998
The film Babettes Feast is a story of the opening of the hearts of a small, puritanical community on the coast of Norway by the generosity of a French refugee cook. Recently called "a cinematic icon of the Eucharist" in a sermon, the film explores love and generosity in the context of a meal and their ability to transform lives. The film is a faithful adaptation of a short story of the same name by Isak Dinesen. The short story is richer, but the film gives images to what the written word can only hint at.
Since the Eucharist is the continued self-giving of God begun at the Creation and renewed in the Incarnation, it is His primary act of generosity continued into time. Babettes Feast helps us to explore that generosity, and does it with the image of a meal, its transforming quality and its locus as the place of transformation.
At the center of the story is an exchange between Babette and two sisters, the daughters of the founder of the small Norwegian community. Twelve years earlier they had taken Babette in as a refugee from one of the revolutions in 19th century France. She arrives with a note from a French singer who had passed through the area some time before, fallen in love with one of the sisters, but left disappointed. The note commends Babette to these good people, and offhandedly mentions that she can cook. During the intervening dozen years Babette cooks the meals the sisters are used to, plain to a fault.
In this twelfth year Babette wins the French lottery, a prize of ten thousand francs. At the same time the sisters are planning a simple celebration of the hundredth anniversary of their father, the founder of their small Christian sect. They expect Babette to leave with her newfound wealth but, instead, she surprises them by offering to cook a meal for the anniversary. The exchange between the sisters and Babette is an icon illuminating the generosity of God and our response to that generosity.
There are three stages to Babettes offer. At first Babette offers to cook a celebration dinner on the founders birthday. She begs them to let her do this. Once the sisters have reluctantly agreed, Babette tells them she wants to cook a real French dinner, just this one time. Again the sisters agree with great misgivings. And then she offers to do this at her own expense. This draws the greatest objection from the sisters, but once again, overwhelmed by Babettes arguments, they give their consent.
Each of these stages illuminates a particular aspect of generosity, including the generosity of God.
First, Babette offers to cook a dinner. The sisters had not planned to have any dinner at all, at most "a very plain supper with a cup of coffee." Their surprise is compounded by the fact that Babette has understood the Norwegian of their private conversations, and so knows the plans they were making for this anniversary.
How like this is to our normal response to the generosity of God. First of all, we are continually surprised by the ability of God to understand our foreign tongue. We speak incoherently, or secretly even, of our deepest and even unknown desires and we are surprised to find out that God understands. He knows our hearts, our secret language, our words that hide even ourselves, so we believe, from the light. At the same time we long to be known by Him. We ask for a response to our essential loneliness, our longing to be known and Gods understanding of our foreign tongue pleading for His love. And the response comes, an act of hospitality on Gods part.
Secondly, we are surprised when God goes beyond the bounds of what we plan in our small ways. How often have we gone along, expecting things to happen in our normal, narrow way of things, thinking of our version of a plain supper and a cup of coffee. And an opening appears, seemingly out of nowhere, raising this plainness to a level we could not imagine! Recently a friend had an occasion to give a sermon on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. He had done minimal preparation in a very short time during a busy travel schedule. Before the Divine Liturgy began he was wondering how such a poorly prepared sermon could have any effect at all. An elderly member of the parish came up to us and started to tell a story of his son having been away for a long time, not even knowing what had happened to him, and of the fathers joy at seeing him again. My friend asked him if he could use this example during the liturgy, and with the old mans consent, delivered a sermon that meant so much more to the people in the church because one of their own could be used as an example.
We get trapped into thinking that our small ways are the full extent of whats possible. With God, all things are possible. We need to train our sights on the glorious possibilities in God. When we pray "O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who are everywhere, fulfilling all things, Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life, come and abide in us " we need to come to understand that we are asking that He who fulfills all things will abide in us, that the Treasury of Blessings will abide in us, that to us and for us, He will grant the fullness of all, not just "a plain supper and a cup of coffee."
The second stage of Babettes offer is that the meal be a French meal, "a real French dinner". This provokes a powerful response on the part of the sisters. "They did not like the idea; they felt that they did not know what it might imply. But the very strangeness of the request disarmed them. They had no arguments wherewith to meet the proposition of cooking a real French dinner." Earlier in the story we learn that the sisters are alarmed and dismayed by French luxury and extravagance and take pains to explain to Babette how she must cook for them simply and plainly for to them luxurious fare was sinful.
Once again we are very much like the sisters in our response to the generosity of God. How easy it is for us to view His generosity with suspicion. It may be the Irish in me but I am very prone to look a gift horse in the mouth when it comes to God. All we need to do is look at the universe around us, the processes of life and death, the care with which God treats the sparrows and the lilies of the field. The problem is that we see this generosity as coming from a foreign land. It does, but because of some personal xenophobia, we are suspicious. It all seems too much, beyond what we have a right to, what we deserve.
The mother of a dear friend died recently. The mother had led a life that made things difficult for those around her, being very demanding. There was only one opinion on any subject and that was hers. At the same time she was very generous to families in the neighborhood who were in need, sometimes taking them into her house for extended periods of time. As she grew older the more negative part of her more and more took center stage until, four years before her death she took to bed with a made-up illness out of pique for an imagined slight. She was essentially bedridden for the last four years of her life, with no known cause except her wanting to punish others. Dearly loved and cared for by her husband, she never said a word of gratitude in all those years. The imagined illness became real, finally, and she came progressively closer to death. All of a sudden, on Easter Sunday, she whispered a soft "thank you" to him as he lifted her from the commode to her bed for the thousandth time. Too late to change the decline of her body, her heart was still able to change and she became gradually softer. As I pulled her up in bed during a particularly uncomfortable time she said to me "Bob, your arms are going to get so tired doing this." She became very peaceful for the last two days and died a wonderful death at home surrounded by her children, grandchildren and
great-grandchildren. All who attended her death were so taken by it that all stayed around her body for about three hours telling stories, toasting her good points and forgiving her weaknesses. Her death had the sweetest smell.
One of her daughters, however, in her sorrow, was only taken up by an idea that death is the realm of the Evil One and could not see the gift of God present in Margarets death. She could not see the extravagance of God, providing not just a death, but a beautiful death, a holy death, even to one who had come at the eleventh hour. An icon of the Descent into Hell, showing Jesus pulling Adam and Eve from Hades, had been placed in Margarets room when she returned home from the hospital for the last time before her death. The image of that icon offers hope to all, showing that Jesus will go to the most unlikely extremes to bring us home.
Offering a French dinner was not the final outrage of Babettes generosity. "She had one more prayer to make. She begged that her mistresses would allow her to pay for the French dinner with her own money." The sisters are greatly agitated by this offer. How could she spend her precious money on them? Babette steps forward, formidably, like a wave rising. Her voice was like a song. She had not asked them for anything in twelve years of service. " can you imagine what it means to a human heart to have no prayer to make? Tonight she had a prayer to make .Do you not then feel tonight, my ladies, that it becomes you to grant it to her, with such joy as that with which the good God has granted you your own?" The sisters are nonplussed by this line of reasoning, and decide to grant the request. "After all, they told themselves, their cook was now better off than they, and a dinner could make no difference to a person who owned ten thousand francs." Their consent changes their perception of Babette. She becomes beautiful in their eyes and the sisters wonder if they have become the "good people" others had always called them.
So Babette offers to cook a dinner, not just a dinner but a French dinner, not just a French dinner but a free French dinner. This final part of the offer, that the dinner be free, is yet another image for the generosity of God. We know salvation comes to us freely. It is not something we earn (although we do have to be open to it). And that is the image given to us here in the final part of the offer. First of all Babette begs to be able to give this dinner at her own expense. And the sisters, partly in disbelief, will hear none of it. How do we respond to the generosity of God? How often we do so in disbelief, incredulous that such an offer can be made? The fact is, not only does God offer us salvation, health, joy, peace, He offers it to us freely. And, He insists that we take it! Like Babette, He steps forward into our lives, His voice like a song, and pleads that we grant Him the joy of accepting His gift!
It is often said that life in Christ begins with the tiniest move on our part, just the hint of an opening, and then God steps in and overwhelms us in response. In this whole transaction between Babette and the sisters, Babette uses just the tiniest opening, a modest celebration, to wreak havoc in the lives of the sisters, and with their community, by such outrageous generosity. God is ever ready, looking for the smallest opening, in a sense praying that we will grant Him the joy of accepting His offer! And when we accept, He takes over in the kitchen, raining down on us grace after grace after grace. The finest French delicacies are nothing compared to the gifts He has to bestow. We have only to say YES!
[Robert Flanagan is a member of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross, Medford, New Jersey.]