Lost in the heart of a wild forest, you stumble upon a farm, generations old. It’s an impossible thing—a working farm smack-dab in the middle of dense, dark woods—but here it is: a huge red barn, a cluster of outbuildings, and a three-story brick house, all carefully maintained.
Entering the barn, you find the mow stacked high with hay. The stalls and pens are fat with animals. Out back, the smokehouse is crowded with hams and sides of beef. The root cellar’s crates and burlap bags are bulging with apples and pears and potatoes and carrots and onions….
You step up onto the front porch of the house and open the door. Like many farmhouses, it isn’t locked. Somehow you know that you’re welcome here without needing to be told. You walk right in.
Once inside, you find the rooms unremarkable, except for the fact that each is a garden plot. Corn stalks, vining cucumbers, melons and squash, rows of beans and peas and pepper plants, bushes of basil, stands of lavender, flowers of every imaginable sort are growing straight up out of the floor.
You come across a man tending the garden, planting, weeding, pruning, harvesting. This master gardener seems as ageless as the soil he tills. He’s so absorbed in his tending that he doesn’t notice you. Somehow you understand that while this man might live in this house—this bountiful earth become home—it doesn’t belong to him. He belongs to it.
Finally, in the depths of the house, you enter what must be called, despite its rich vegetation, a dining room. It’s filled with tables covered with starched white linens. The sight of these tables stuns you. Suddenly you’re aware that you aren’t alone in the house. The tables are clear evidence: there must be multitudes here; multitudes who, just like you, were not so long ago traipsing through the forest, and have somehow ended up here, their presence long expected. Multitudes who, just like you, need to eat.
This is the moment you wake up. You’re no longer a mere sightseer in this house, a tourist just passing through this earth become home. You get it now: you have both place and purpose here.
A woman appears out of nowhere, elderly but by no means frail. Like the gardener, she’s very old, yet somehow beyond the reach of time. She’s obviously the keeper of this house, the maker of this home. You think of her as Grandmother Earth.
And what does Grandmother do but immediately put you to work. She knows that having you help set the table for the unseen multitudes will help prepare you to actually sit down and eat with them, when the time comes. It will help you regard their lives as equal in worth to your own.
She hands you a tall stack of plates to set around the table—not big dinner plates, but little bread plates. They seem to signify the wisdom of desiring and consuming only what one truly needs. Given the linens and other finery on the tables, you would expect these dishes to be bone china. But they’re everyday dishes, cracked and chipped. Still, they’re sufficient for what they must do, even as you are.
You take the bread plates from Grandmother, and, without needing to be asked, you begin setting them around the tables. It’s precisely now, when you begin to help, that the tables are suddenly overflowing with all kinds of food: platters of fried chicken and roast beef, tureens of soup, bowls of mashed potatoes and creamed spinach and corn, brimming gravy boats, pans of fruit cobbler, filled pies…. Endless food—more than any holiday meal you’ve ever seen.
As you’re trying to squeeze in the bread plates among the serving dishes, you speak for the first and only time. You ask Grandmother a single question. Not “Will there be enough food to feed everyone?” Not “Does everyone deserve to be fed?” No, what you ask over your shoulder is this: “Will there be enough room for everybody at the table?”
“Enough room?” Grandmother says, with a chuckle. She stands there, hands on hips, a bemused look on her face, as if she’s been asked this question every day for the last century. “Of course, there’ll be room! Not everyone will be fed here—there are thousands and thousands of rooms in this house—but everybody has a place at the table.”
* * *
I dreamed this dream while living by choice for 47 days on the streets of Columbus, Ohio. I recount that story in The Emptiness of Our Hands, co-authored with James Murray, my dear friend and fellow street dweller. More than 20 years have passed since our season on the streets, yet this vivid dream is always running in the background of my days. I consider it a slight parting of the veil between What Is and What Could Be.
Are we willing to find room at the Great Table for the entire human family, even for those we’d rather turn away? Are we prepared to make room for one another?
The Great Feast is meant to be an everyday occurrence; every day, we take up anew the Great Work of laying it again and welcoming one another to the Table. Whatever we accomplish this day is enough. Tomorrow, if we’re lucky enough to be alive, we have the privilege of starting in all over again.
I’ll see you in Grandmother’s House.