Love, honesty, and feasting in a time of fast

Alice and her partner on the day of her priesting

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that food, specifically the cooking and eating of it with loved ones and good wine, is intrinsically the stuff of identity.  I began to teach myself to cook aged 18, on my gap year, living in a (literally) mouldy flat on £70 per week.  I bought my first cookbook, A Girl Called Jack by Jack Monroe, because it was cheap and because I knew I was gay, and I was terrified that someone might find out.  I couldn’t cook, and I couldn’t be honest.  My physical and mental health suffered.  I knew I was going to be a priest, and I knew I wanted to fall in love, get married, and surround myself with children, with warmth, with hunger satisfied, with home.  I was homesick for a future I feared would never be permitted.

At university I lived in a happy house with 3 brilliant girls and an outrageously beautiful kitchen. A range cooker with 6 gas hobs, huge high windows, and an apple tree in the garden.  It was brief, beautiful, giddy utopia.  I fell in love, and the first thing I fed her was a slice of banana loaf, at 1am in that beautiful kitchen.

Fast forward three years and I am a new priest. Coral and I are in a civil partnership, which we contracted on bright winter’s day, wearing white dresses and diamond rings, wrapped in fur and the burning, shining certainty that this was so right and good. 100 people shared a three-course meal, a groaning cheese table, a mountain of cake, and a busy bar with us. We danced until the small hours, a roaring open fire burned continuously. It was objectively the best wedding I’ve ever been to, and it wasn’t even a wedding.

I’m not homesick for my future, the future is now.  We live in a warm house, with a nice kitchen full of the gifts people gave us on that bright winter’s day.  The tools of the trade of our love; weighing scales, pans, knives, bowls, spices, spoons, peelers, trays, dishes, steamer (still in its box). We gather them from near and far, our loved ones, they shuffle in out of the cold and of their coats and we say ‘Drink? Would you like?’ Corks pop, glasses empty and fill, someone says “gosh that smells delicious” and I say ‘Oh it’s just the onions frying’.  Bowls are filled to the brim, cups run over, this is it, this is love, this is family, this is home.

And then 2020.  No one comes over the threshold for months. We plan meals obsessively, and there is no joy in it.  My priesting is postponed, and so begins a long summer of waiting and questioning, a long eucharistic fast. Via Zoom I watch friends celebrate the eucharist, and cold disconnectedness sits on my chest like a stone.  I devour cookbooks ravenously, fantasising about the day when we can gather around the dining table, fantasising about gathering around the altar, about the things we took for granted; a full church, a choir, thunderous organ music, towering clouds of spiced incense, joy, hugging, kissing, endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won. Endless victory indeed.

I am ordained priest and I say my first mass in a brief and sweet hiatus, a swift golden burst of Michaelmas sunshine. Those I love most in all the world gather around the altar. I take the bread and hold it. I take the cup of wine. This is my body, this is my blood, this is my life given for you. Silence falls, eternal and terrible and beautiful, and I think this is it, this is love, this is family, this is home. Bowls are filled to the brim and cups run over.  This is who I truly am, and it is who we truly are.  This is the Father opening his wide, longing arms to embrace us, to half-walk, half-carry us home rejoicing to feast.

This table is whence all goodness flows, it is where we can be honest about who we are, who we really are. This is how fear falls away, because this is perfect love, and perfect love casts out fear.

I can cook now, and I can be honest.  A Girl Called Jack sits on our kitchen shelf, along with all of Jack’s subsequent books. It is dog-eared, torn and splattered with sauce and scribbled on in biro.  I still leaf through it occasionally, for a taste of nostalgia or a reminder of a half-remembered method. It is sleeping in my memory of a time of great fear and frustration. A time of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What will my life be?’.  Those questions were answered with time, and love, and good wine, around the tables of kind friends who fed me and loved me into self-acceptance.  This is who I really am, this is it, this is love, this is family, this is home. Bowls are filled to the brim and cups run over.

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The Rev’d. Alice Jolley is Assistant Curate at St Nicholas Church in the diocese and city of Lincoln.

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