1871: Civil war rages in Paris. The Parisian Republican insurgents have risen against the repressive Versailles government. The Communards are overwhelmed; many die in the fighting; of those who survive, some few flee abroad. The Danish writer Isak Dineson fictionalized the story of one who escaped the carnage and was given asylum in Norway. Babette has stood behind the barricades during the uprising, stood courageously against the cruelty and oppression of the ruling elite. Her private grief is that those she has fought against are also those who have most appreciated her masterful cuisine in Paris’ finest restaurants, for she is perhaps the greatest chef of her time—and to give satisfaction to those of refined culinary taste has been her truest joy.
Babette is taken in, in a spirit of quiet charity, by two elderly spinster sisters in a small, coastal Norwegian village. The lifestyle she finds here could hardly be more different from the fast-paced, brightly lit, luxurious ambience of later nineteenth century Paris. The sisters are the surviving daughters of a Lutheran pastor, a saintly soul whose spiritual magnetism uplifted his congregation into a high state of brotherly love and servicefulness to those in need. Their faith is plain and unpretentious—simple living and high thinking: plain dress, nourishing but unimaginative meals, a quiet and humble demeanor.
Coming within a few months is the one hundredth anniversary of their father, the revered pastor. The two sisters want to commemorate the event, to honor their father’s memory, and, they hope, reawaken in the aging congregation the bright spirit of bygone years. For their private grief is that this spirit has been much tarnished since the pastor’s death. A darkness has crept into the village. Where once there was spiritual enthusiasm, loving fellowship, and serviceful compassion for those in need, there now has come to be a spirit of littleness, selfishness, judgment. Little hurts of long ago have returned again and again to memory, have gradually solidified into bitter resentments, into forgetfulness of past friendship, past kindness and love. People who were once the best of friends now look away, clutching to their hearts old pains, or old guilts. The sisters have kept their kindheartedness; they do their best to honor their father’s memory, to keep alive the vibrant spirit of his day.
Such is the emotional climate of the village when Babette undertakes her service as cook to the two sisters. Refusing any pay, saying nothing of her past life in Paris, of her mastery of fine cuisine, she quietly, humbly cooks the plain, bland fare the sisters are accustomed to and feel appropriate to their religious beliefs. In the bleak, grey, wintry weather of the village, Babette dreams of, and mourns the loss of, the life she once had, her sunny, vivacious homeland. And yet, in her silent way, she has also tuned in to the suffering around her, the gloomy, introverted, resentful energies poisoning the lives of the good sisters and their father’s congregation. When, against all odds, she wins a prize drawing entered long before the troubles of the insurgency, Babette sees the money not as her way home but as a way to create something beautiful right where she is.
A plan forms in Babette’s mind. She asks the sisters their permission to prepare, herself and at her own cost, the special meal—a real French meal—for their father’s one hundredth anniversary. Weeks of preparation ensue. Into this meal Babette pours her whole being—not only her attunement to cooking on its highest level as a fine art, but also to cooking as her way of bringing joy to others.
Twelve are invited to Babette’s feast. At first there is a dour and suspicious silence at table. But as course succeeds steaming course, the mood gradually lightens and, finally, lifts into genuine happiness and fellowship. Old grudges dissolve in the fragrance of Babette’s divinely self-giving love. The old people discover again the friendship buried beneath layers of hurt. Something of the Divine enters every soul, channeled through one who gives her utmost in service. A sacred luminosity enters the dining room, emanates from the house out into the wintry landscape, and lingers long in blessing on the suffering village.
Among my own earthly relatives is one woman, a mother and now a grandmother, who is, in her own way, a Babette, a creative, compassionate, and serviceful soul. Her son, Aaron, married and entered dharmically into his householder responsibilities. When their first child came, the young mother, Lori, fell into a severe depression, one that turned into a violent rage. The young father, a gentle soul, became the target of a physical assault. The same scenario recurred after the birth of the second child—but this time with so much destructive violence that neighbors summoned the police, who promptly arrested the hysterical young woman and carried her to their station. The young father, with broken ribs, made his way to his mother’s home, there to seek safety for the babies and, for himself, sanctuary while he healed.
This good woman, mother and grandmother to a shattered family, sent out her own agonized prayer: “What can I do? How can I help?” And the answer came: “Buy lots of food. Feed everyone.” Her kitchen soon filled with steam and fragrance. Magnetically drawn to the place of healing came Lori’s own mother and godmother. And soon there came another knock at the door—shy and hesitant. There stood Lori herself, released from custody because Aaron had refused to file any charges. Aaron’s mother welcomed her and seated her at the table. Lori’s mother and godmother took their seats too. Aaron, wincing with pain, took his seat as well.
The table was silent, each one subdued and wrapped in thought. From the kitchen came the comforting sound of meal preparation. The lovingly prepared food was served, and the meal began. Steadily the mood lightened. Glances were exchanged, shy, uncertain, hesitant at first, then softer, apologetic, tentatively reaching out to give and receive understanding, forgiveness, friendship, love.
At the end of the meal, against all hope, Aaron and Lori, carrying the two babies, went home together, once again a family.
Mommy’s out in the kitchen; she’s making our dinner.
I hear, by the clink of the pans,
That she’s happy just cooking and knowing we’re near her:
Her happiness flows from her hands.
And I sit by my window and wonder
How the world without mothers would be,
And if people could live without loving:
Such a world I hope never to see!
In divine friendship,
For Ananda’s “Thank You, God” Tithing