Sr. Mary Ann, O.P., holds a doctorate in systematic theology from the Catholic University of America and chairs the Religious Studies Department of Ohio Dominican College.
AS General Loewenhielm discovered in Isak Dinesen’s exquisite story, Babette’s Feast, sooner or later each of us is brought to a personal turning point at which we are compelled to “make out the balance sheet” of our lives.(1) The approach of middle age or the prospect of retirement and old age; a sense of having wasted precious energies or not having spent them enough; the failure of a job or a relationship; the suffering of serious illness or the death of someone close to us — experiences like these are woven into the very fabric of our life. Yet, in a mysterious way, these same experiences have a way of forcing us to reassess the meaning of our life, to question its worth and direction. We begin to ask, at least in the secret places of our heart, whether the important decisions we have made along the way might not have been a great mistake. In having chosen one path we necessarily rejected another. Did the road we take cut us off from a greater happiness we could have found had we chosen another? Could love and grace have been ours far more abundantly had we decided differently?
General Lowenheilm faces such a turning point when he revisits a town he had left as a young man. In this place walks the specter of a younger Loewenhielm and the man he might have become. In returning to Fossum, Loewenhielm cannot escape the anguished question his soul asks. “Must I finally face this, that I have lost forever the happiness that might have been mine?” But as he dines at a feast prepared by the French cook Babette, as he eats with people — one of whom he has never stopped loving — he had left thirty years ago, he comes to see the meaning of his life with a new and deeper “second vision.” In a moment of completely unexpected, exquisitely tender grace poured out at a festive meal, he finds the answer. The graciousness of God is infinitely more lavish than even his mistaken life choices. In the end, “grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty” (40).
It is a simple story. But it is good at times to have our souls feast on the depths of precisely such a story. For in our meditation, we may come, unaware, upon the secret questions at the core of our own being. In reflecting on the meaning of Babette’s feast, we may discover in our own lives not only Lowenhielm’s question but also the answer he found as he dined at this meal. “See! That which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us” (40). Through this simple “anecdote of destiny” we may discover in our own experience a feast of mercy not unlike that of Babette’s. In our own lives we may find what Loewelhielm’s “second vision” saw: that finally God can lavish upon us what we also once refused. In this world embraced by God’s tenderness indeed, anything is possible (42).
As a young Danish lieutenant, Lorens Loewenhielm had fallen in love with Martine, daughter of a Lutheran pastor. For a brief moment, he experienced the truth of a family legend, the gift of a “second vision,” showing him the possibility of a “higher and purer life” with Martine, “with no secret, unpleasant pangs of conscience” (6) But he had never considered himself “spiritual,” and on his visits to their home, he always found himself dumb. Though he loved Martine, he began to grow more contemptible in his own eyes in this “spiritual” setting. Knowing her dedication to her father’s work, he knew also that he could never be happy here. In despair he cries out to Martine that he must go away forever. “I shall never, never see you again! For I have learned here that Fate is hard, and that in this world there are things which are impossible!” (6) He goes away, and decides to forget his vision; he will not look back.
Martine’s sister, Phillipa, also had a suitor, the great opera singer from Paris, Achille Papin. But, afraid of her own heart, Phillipa turns Papin away. Fifteen years later, Papin writes to ask the sisters if they would accept the services of a French woman who had to flee Paris. Babette was her name, and she could cook. Papin had known Phillipa’s unfulfilled potential; she could have been a great singer. He concludes his letter with a note to her: “The grave is not the end. In Paradise I shall hear your voice again. There you will sing, without fears or scruples, as God meant you to sing. There you will be the great artist that God meant you to be. AN how you will enchant the angels” (14).
Martine and Phillipa had continued their father’s work. Now, fifteen years after taking Babette into their poor home, their little congregation was not doing well. Two old women who could not remember a conversation from yesterday, still recalled every detail of a wrong they had done to each other four decades ago. One old man could not forgive a brother who had cheated him forty-five years earlier. A man and woman had had an affair with each other long ago; now, decades later, they still could only accuse and blame one another.
Martine and Phillipa were planning a simple supper in memory of their father’s one hundredth anniversary. Having won a Parisian lottery, Babette convinced them that she would both prepare and pay for the dinner. She would serve them a real French feast. The austere little congregation were loathe to indulge in this worldly pleasure, but they resolved, for charity’s sake, to share in the meal without paying attention to its lavishness. After all, Jesus did not fear to be present at the feast at Cana. And grace had “chosen to manifest itself there, in the very wine, as fully as anywhere” (35).
It was the design of providence that General Lowenhielm, who was visiting his aunt, would also be present at this feast. As he prepared to attend, his soul could not escape the feeling the unhappiness which, despite his success, had attended him these thirty years. For the briefest moment he saw with clarity the face of Martine long ago …. But tonight he would let the young man he once was prove to him that he had made the right decision. His world would have been miserable had he chosen as his youthful vision had suggested ….(33)
And yet, in his heart, he found himself hungering for the gift of seeing with new eyes the meaning of life, of his life. He had once rejected precisely this gift, and had made his life-choice with surface sight. He had lived a good life, a successful, and yes, even moral life. But now, the man he had become faced the youth he had been, to ask him with bitterness in what had he profited? (33) For now, only now in his mature years, did he dimly begin to see that life is “not a moral but a mystic concern” (32). Yes, a mystic concern, he began to suspect; its meaning is found, and lived, only by those with deeper sight, deeper love, deeper trust than the visible evidence warrants.
Babette had made elaborate preparations for this feast, and her cooking filled the house with “warmth and sweet smell.” Greeted by this sweetness, the austere little congregation found that, as they nestled inside, their hearts thawed along with their cold fingers (29). As their eyes drank in the beauty of the candlelit table with its precious silverware and china, as their stomachs feasted on the exquisite food and wine, the little group found themselves feasting, unaware, on love, on lavish love. And instead of growing heavier as they ate, the people inside the little home grew lighter in heart the more they feasted (37-38).
For the mysterious Babette had hidden a secret from them these fifteen years. She was not simply a cook; she had been the world-famous chef of the Caf Anglais in Paris. Men had fought duels over her, for she alone knew how to turn a dinner into a love affair where body and spirit are one (38). And although the poor congregation did not know it, they were dining upon the entire sum of Babette’s lottery prize. They were eating the most lavish and costly feast the once world-famous Babette had ever prepared at the Caf Anglais. As they ate, the little group found themselves full of an intoxication of mind and heart and body which they had never experienced before. These people, usually silent at meals, on this night found somehow their tongues loosened and their hearts melted (36).
They did not know what they were eating, or its cost. But the General knew. He recognized the exquisite aromas and tastes, and remembered visits to the Caf Anglais long ago. Now he was being served its finest meal, here, in this austere house where long ago he had felt so out of place. The feast he thought he could have only in the glitter of Paris was being lavished upon him here, in this place he had once rejected. Here, where long ago his hot blood had been a stranger to this group’s austere ways, he now found hearts as warm as his had once been, tongues innocently, unknowingly, enjoying the taste of precious wine with him. And he was at home with these people of the spirit.
The little group, in turn, were unexpectedly, miraculously, at home with this extravagant feast for the senses. These poor little ones, without knowing it, were found worthy to have the most costly meal of the Caf Anglais lavished upon them. Babette treated them as she had treated the royalty of Paris. They did not know this with their minds, but they felt it with their hearts. And as their bodies feasted, their souls were being healed. For one brief hour they tasted heaven, they say “the universe as it really is” (42).
The little group would realize this only later. But General Loewenhielm realized it even now, in the midst of the feast. He had once sat absolutely dumb at this same table, in this same spiritual company, years ago. Now he was given, from the depths of his own soul, words that came from heaven itself. We are so foolish, he said, to think that grace is finite, that it is limited to certain times, certain places. “We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite” (40). God can pour out upon us anywhere, even in the places where our mistaken choices have taken us, the very gift we thought we could have only in the place we choose to leave behind.
What is required of us, the General continued, is simply to wait for this grace in trust, and when it is given, to receive it with grateful hearts. For when our eyes are opened, we see with deeper sight that God’s grace is infinite, embracing us always, everywhere. Then we understand what grace means: what we once rejected is now “poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!” (41)
The extravagant God knows how to give again, irrevocably, what we once threw away; how to give us in another, lasting way what we once did not want and yet always desired. The God of prodigal love knows how to follow us down the highways and byways even of our mistaken paths, knows how to lavish a feast of grace upon us anywhere. In this house the little flock had argued and bickered and unconsciously lamented their individually cruel fates. Yet tonight, as they walked from this house, the windows seemed to shine with warm light, and precious song seemed to flow from the house into the night (41).
The song of mercy stayed in their hearts. The two old women would find the unexpected grace to “go past the evil period in which they had been stuck” for so long, to the early days of their lives when “hand in hand [they] had filled the roads round Berlevaag with singing.” The old man who had been cheated scores of years ago would exchange with his enemy an affectionate “knock in the ribs, like a rough caress between boys” (41). The lovers-of-old who could not forgive would find time to give each other, now widowed, the long and tender kiss “for which the secret uncertain love affair of their youth had never left them time” (42).
And General Loewenhielm would have back his first love forever. As he left the house, he held Martine’s hand in his. After a long silence he confessed to her, “I have been with you every day of my life …. And I shall be with you every day that is left to me.” He would dine with her always, just as tonight. For his presence with her would not be in the flesh, which is `passing, but in the spirit, “which is all” (42). Long ago he had cried out in despair to her, “Fate is hard. . .in this world there are things which are impossible.” Now, thirty years later, he spoke with love and tenderness the truth he could not deny: “Tonight I have learned, dear sister, that in this world anything is possible” (42).
It is difficult not to be touched by this simple story precisely because in some ways it is our own story as well. As we hear it, chords are struck deep in our own hearts. In some way, we find ourselves in each person at Babette’s feast. We are the sisters, and Loewenhielm; we are the little flock. We are even Babette herself, the great chef. As she had learned in Paris, and now in the little home of Phillipa and Martine, when she did her very best, she could make people happy. But in this poor house, she could not be the magnificent chef she really was. Yet, Martine tells her, in heaven she will be, without obstacle, the great artist she was meant to be. And, there, oh, how she will enchant the angels (48).
Dinesen’s story seems to stay in the heart of one who has read it and to come back at quiet times to speak its deeper meaning. It has a way of filling the soul, as Babette’s feast filled the house, with “warmth and sweet smell;” of evoking gratitude where once there had been bitterness, of calling forth trust where once there had been fear. In hearing this story we begin to remember graces long forgotten, “feasts of grace” we did not recognize or took for granted in our own lives. We begin to recall, dimly, but with deeper, “second vision,” feasts of mercy lavished on us in place of gifts we once refused, or thought were refused to us.
This simple story has a way of nudging us to give ourselves back to God in a final, irrevocable act of self-surrender and gratitude and love. It has a way of inspiring us to work for in love and to wait for in hope further feasts of grace which now seem impossible to us, feasts of grace we long to share with our family, our community, our nation, our world. These are feasts that surely will be given us, beyond our wildest expectations, in heaven. But they also can be given us, as Loewenhielm learned, even now, in the very place we had despaired of, in the way we could never have dreamed.
Is this not the point of Matthew’s parable about the laborers who come at the last hour, yet who are given the same recompense as those who have labored the entire day (Matt. 20:1-16)? God’s extravagant love in Jesus is prodigally spent even on pagans, on outcasts. Grace is poured out without limit, and lavished even on those who least expect it, on those who least deserve it. In an early homily for the “feast of grace” par excellence, the Paschal Vigil, the author invites all — those who have kept the Lenten fast and those who have not — to come to the Eucharistic feast.(2) On this night, at this feast, everything can be redeemed, even past mistakes, even misspent lives. Finally, Babette’s feast and the feasts of grace which are our very lives, are a sharing in this meal in which we feed on God, and where, indeed, everything is possible.
- Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast and Other Anecdotes of Destiny (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1988), p. 32. Further references to this work will be cited in the text by page number.
- A partial translation by Vladimir Lossky appears in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), pp. 247-49.