Last weekend I attended a conference for Unitarian Universalist seminarians, at which our theologian in residence was the Rev. Thandeka.
Thandeka is, quite honestly, something of a legend within my denomination. Thus, I was surprised when I learned that she was willing to spend an entire weekend with us—but she felt that there were things that we as seminarians needed to hear, and things that someone needed to offer us.
And so we came together, seminarians and theologian, and I stood ready, palms out and eyes closed, to accept those things. Hard truths, where needed. Challenge.
Those came, at times. So did encouragement, and grounding, and connection with one another and with our sense of the sacred. And also, halfway through a Saturday morning workshop, there came something more tangible.
Something small. Something wrinkly.
Thandeka gave me—gave each of us—a raisin.
And then, commanding us to empty our mouths of anything else, she instructed us to eat that raisin. More specifically, to chew it. Sixty times.
Friends, I detest raisins. Truly. From early childhood, I have gone to great lengths to avoid ever having one in my mouth. This has become such a habit that it’s extremely rare that I even come into contact with one–so rare, in fact, that a mere encounter might occasion a story. A pause. A chance for theological reflection.
Take, for example, last November. It happened at church. We did a cornbread and cranberry juice communion the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and members of the congregation were invited to bring homemade cornbread. The baskets were passed down the aisles . . . and it turned out that the one that our section of the church received was a raisin cornbread. (Yep, that’s a thing. It’s probably lovely . . . if you don’t happen to hate raisins.)
My kids do not hate raisins, but they don’t like things-in-things, and were thus immediately, and vocally, suspicious of this offering. Which put me in the odd, but oh-so-adult, position of reminding them both that we receive graciously and eat politely–and then modeling this myself. Raisins and all.
Boy, was I impressed with myself in biting that cornbread. Goodness, was I mature about eating it. I even swallowed it. I discovered that it was crumbly enough that if I took small bites, I didn’t really have to chew–no teeth-to-raisin contact needed to occur. And I reflected on how simply accepting what is given and expecting that it will be enough is itself a spiritual practice.
I took what was there. I let it feed me. I managed not to engage the raisins.
And I think this is how we get through those first awkward, maybe even distasteful or painful, experiences of true community. Of communion. On that Sunday last November, my largely atheistic humanist “fellowship” served up a Communion with a hearty side of communion, and I, Look-at-me-I’m-Christian girl, did what I could to choke it down. With as much generosity and grace as I had available in that moment, I partook in the ritual by merely getting through it. And I was proud of myself. (And you know what? That’s ok. You gotta start somewhere.)
Elsewhere in the church, or even right there in my same row, there were probably others mustering their grace and grit and getting through it, too. Others who hate raisins, or more likely, who love raisins, but hate communion. We did it, though. Individually, and also together. Yay, us.
That was a moment, believe it or not, of increasing spiritual maturity. It was a conscious decision to step away from the what-I-want-when-I-want-it consumer culture in which I live most of my life, and to take and be thankful for exactly what I didn’t want.
And then I forgot about that chewy little object lesson, at least consciously, as I moved through the months since then—11 months that have tracked exactly with my discernment and beginning formation process. Until last weekend. Until I discovered that the Raisin Test has a part II.
I have a child with sensory processing disorder, and mainly I’m simply aware that I do not know what it is to experience life as he does. To feel sensations so strongly or acutely that they trigger a shut-down reaction. Except, when I held that fat dark raisin in the palm of my hand last weekend, and considered what I had just been asked to do, I thought I sort of might. I thought this because my beef with raisins isn’t the same as with, say, beets, of which I hate the flavor, or items labeled “processed cheese food,” to which I am opposed on nutritional principle.
When it comes to raisins, I simply hate the texture.
Not only do I not want to eat them—I do not, above all else, want to chew them. I do not wish to hold one in my mouth, to mash it with my teeth, to experience its fundamental raisin-ness and to do all of the above with no distractions and with a chewing end-point farther away than for any food that has touched my lips in recent memory.
I do not want to.
And this—the instruction, the expectation, the experience—is so fundamentally perfect, so very this process, that I actually smile as I hold that raisin before me. Well played, life.
Isn’t this the way? Isn’t this precisely what we must each do?
Take this thing that you recoil from the mere thought of, and engage with it. Don’t eat around it, or pretend it’s not there, or swallow it whole. Take it on. Do precisely that which makes you uncomfortable, and continue to do it until the feared object disintegrates.
And so, I do it.
It goes like this:
2 chews: OMG, I’m eating a raisin.
4: I hate raisins. I –eek—hate. Raisins.
7: Raisins stick to my teeth.
10: Raisins are objectionably chewy. Raisins taste raisiny.
15: It feels different now.
20: It tastes interesting.
25: I actually sort of like the taste of this raisin.
35: Raisin flavor is surprisingly complex
45: Maybe I don’t hate raisins?
55: I’m chewing on nothing. I’m engaging with the memory of raisin.
The point of this exercise was not overcoming sensory aversion, but labeling sensate experiences, and we went on with the workshop. In the week since then I have kept reflecting, though, and what I think so far is: maybe I don’t hate raisins. Maybe I just dislike being uncomfortable, including that claustrophobic feeling when things get too close to me. Raisin, don’t touch my teeth! And thus, I wonder if I’ve been so worried about having to feel discomfort that I’m missing things. Important things. Non-raisin things. If I’ve been aiming to avoid, or to eat around, all of those experiences which are initially uncomfortable but ultimately necessary.
What if “lean in” actually looks more like “bite off”?
Bite off, in fact, and then chew. 60 times.
Until all that is left is air, and memory . . . and myself. Oh, my silly, beautiful self: we meet again.
I may just learn patience—and presence–one chewy lesson at a time.