Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Bitter and the Sweet

At the ripe old age of 42 I began drinking coffee. I had avoided it for years, since it tasted pretty much like burnt beans to me. While I love sour flavors, I have never been one to appreciate bitter flavors. Grapefruit, gin, many kinds of greens, any number of medicinal concoctions – all of them turned me off with their bitter astringency. So I avoided coffee even through college and the early stages of my career. Nevertheless, a few years ago I reached a point in my life and my business where I simply needed chemical assistance. Too many early mornings after burning the midnight oil. I viewed coffee as a delivery system for caffeine, and I found that with enough sugar and cream, almost anything can be made mostly drinkable. I still take my coffee sweet and light, but less sweet than I used to, and often less light, depending on how heavy I pour. I don’t know if I’ll ever take it black, but since I never thought I would drink coffee at all, I can’t rule it out.

In the past two years I have learned to actually like coffee. I not only seek it out for it’s medicinal qualities, but I’ve come to actually enjoy the flavor. I like it strong, too. Sweet, as I have said, but strong. I am of the opinion that there is no such thing as coffee that is too strong. Only people that are too weak.

Recently, my wife and I have been playing around with chocolate. Not the waxy cheap Hershey’s variety. We’ve been exploring the intense flavors of chocolate with a high percentage of cacao – that’s the pure chocolate stuff. Less milk (or none), less sugar, and more of the stuff that makes chocolate chocolate. In fact, we recently purchased a small bag of cacao nibs, little pieces of the actual chocolate bean. You can’t get more pure or direct than this – perhaps unless you melted it in a spoon, drew it up into a syringe and shot it directly into your veins.

As a food, chocolate is about 3000 years old. It was first cultivated in South America, and it’s properties were noticed and celebrated early on. It was a sacred food, and it’s eating was surrounded by myth and ritual. The Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs and Incas all drank chocolate, hot, unsweetened, spiced with chilis and poured out to make it frothy. I have also read that warriors and hunters would chew the beans, sometimes living on them for days with no other food. The fat content of the chocolate bean is very high (about 40% I think) and it’s high concentration of alkaloid substances make it an excellent energy endurance food.

The particular alkaloid prevalent in cacao is theobromine (C7H8N4O2, or 3,7-dimethylxanthine, or 3,7-Dihydro-3,7-dimethyl-1H-purine-2,6-dione for you organic chemists in the crowd). The figure on the left is Theobromine. the right is caffeine.

Theobromine literally translates as food of the gods. It is unclear whether this means food FOR the gods, or food FROM the gods. Either way is good, I suppose. Theobromine is a close analog to caffeine, an alkaloid with which we are much more familiar. Like caffeine, another member of the methylxanthine family, it is a stimulant, but it’s effects are quite different from those caffeine. Caffeine is like injecting nitrous oxide into an internal combustion engine. The effects are immediate, dramatic, and short lived. Theobromine is more like putting an octane booster in the gas tank. The effects are noticeable, but much gentler and longer lasting than caffeine. Theobromine does not affect the central nervous system, but it does dilate the blood vessels, reducing blood pressure. It stimulates the cardiovascular and muscle systems, as well as the kidneys. It produces a mild pleasurable effect on the body, and lasts about 3 times as long as caffeine in the blood. Yet the difference between caffeine and theobromine is a couple of extra hydrogen molecules.

So I am experimenting with eating the chocolate bean. I left for a run this morning with a wad of cacao nibs (broken pieces of cacao beans) tucked into my cheek. I wanted to see if they had any effect on my performance. This is not really a scientific trial – there are way too many variables unaccounted for. Nevertheless, I wanted to see if I noticed anything. I did, but not really what I expected.

I noticed that I seem to be coming to terms with bitterness. To chew on cacao beans is a pretty intensely bitter experience. A few years ago I would have spit them out. This bitterness still makes me wince a bit, but I get through it, and I even manage to note some of the other essences that chocophiliacs rave about – floral and berry flavors, hints of lavender and wine. I like the idea of eating a food that has been around for thousands of years, that has been used by warriors to sustain them over long periods. I’m not sure if they chewed on “nibs” exactly, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t have chocolate bars. These are all reasons for doing this, but what’s particularly interesting is that I am doing it at all. I don’t yet find the bitterness pleasant (as some people apparently do) but I find that I can tolerate it.

I suspect this may have parallels elsewhere in my life. There has certainly been a degree of bitterness in my world lately. Fear, anxiety, fatigue, uncertainty, all flavored by traces of anger and blame. That’s just the feelings around the circumstances. It’s not even the circumstances themselves. It all makes for some difficult pills to swallow, and it tastes pretty awful going down. Yet there is nothing else for it. Life is what it is and you eat what you are served when it comes around. Still, is it possible to learn to love the bitterness?

I think maybe it is. I think, in fact, that may be a good part of what spiritual growth is about. I think maybe this is where we find the difference between knowing God, and knowing about Him. I wrote in one of my earlier posts about my puzzlement over the apparent lack of Christian tradition around purposely cultivating a peaceful heart. We all know about the myriad of eastern traditions and techniques – zen meditation, koans, chi gung, yoga, ayurveda and so on. We seldom read about a technical approach to Christian enlightenment. How does one attain to the “Peace of Christ that passeth all understanding” exactly? It’s not that the Christian tradition is void of such things. It’s not hard to find, if one looks, various practices and rules – Desert Fathers in caves, ascetics sitting on poles, vows of silence, the Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits. Various mystics practicing many types of devotion. Yet such practices do not seem to have the same hold on Christian thought as they do on the eastern religions. Perhaps this is because ultimately our peace, our joy, our enlightenment does not depend on technique and it does not depend on us. It is about a Person, and it comes from Him and flows back to Him.

Christ enlightens the darkened heart. Christ brings peace from the turmoil. Christ turns the ugly soiled things of life into pure white linen. Christ makes it new, makes it bright, and enfolds it into Himself and in so doing gives it back to us as it was meant to be. Christ is Joy -- and our Joy, and Peace and Life is in Him and is Him.

There are kinds of knowing. This is a kind of knowing that is beyond the command of information. Jesus says “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” I am thinking that He did not mean that he shows the way, although He does. He means the He is the way Himself. And when we release ourselves to Him and His work, we join ourselves to Him and we come to know Him more.

I am starting, just starting, to glimpse how Christ takes the bitterness of life and turns it. He alone can take that bitterness and redeem it, turning it into all kind of goodness. How is it, on a cosmic, historic scale that He takes Adam’s disobedience and turns it into something even better than if Adam had never sinned? The Apostle Paul wrote, “the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” How much more did it overflow! How much more!

This kind of turnabout is His specialty. And if He can turn about a whole world gone wrong, what can He do with my life, my bitterness? Indeed, what WILL He not do with it?

So can I learn to love the bitterness? To love to see what life Christ will bring from it? Perhaps by His grace --perhaps I can. I chew the beans, taste them, swallow them, and thank Almighty God for them. They are His gift, bitterness and all.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

CS Lewis would not have written this essay, but I think he would have liked it.

Dubbahdee said...

I have been actively resisting the temptation to quote Lewis in every other posting. I managed to preach a whole sermon a few weeks ago without quoting Him -- although it wasn't easy. Your saying this is one of the finest compliments I have ever had. Thank you.

I'm wondering though, why exactly you though he would not have written this?

s.j.simon said...

lol. did you know that chocolate was banned in switzerland for many years. read this