I’ve had the joy of visiting a small Christian community in California where—amidst the hustle and flow of daily life—everything stops 10 minutes short of sunset. Gathering in the small yard between houses, with celebratory drinks in hand, all faces turn west toward the coastal foothills to savor the setting sun.
Depending on the season, the sky may ignite in Pentecost reds and oranges above the resurrection gold of the chaparral or it may swirl in Advent blues, royal purples, and joyous pinks over hills wrapped in verdant winter green. The ceremony may last only a few minutes or may inaugurate supper, conversation, and a bonfire. Either way, it exemplifies the art of savoring.
“Savor” comes from the Latin word to taste or the ability to detect differences. It is a quality that appeals to the senses; something that is savory is flavorful. Etymologically, savor is related to sapientia or wisdom—sensible, judicious, the ability to discern fine distinction. It harkens to the poetry of Sappho. (“Here roses leave shadows on the ground/ and cold springs bubble through the apple branches.”)
Savoring is antithetical to the consumerist myth, which claims that individuals will be satisfied and successful through buying, owning, and consuming, in quick succession. The art of savoring is strategically discouraged in a capitalist market economy in which labor and land, humans and nature (and the enjoyment thereof) are subordinate to the hungers of the prevailing economic system.
AND YET GOD invites us to learn this art and revel in its gifts. Remember the Song of Songs: “Your branches are an orchard of/ pomegranate trees heavy with fruit,/ flowering henna and spikenard,/ spikenard and saffron, cane and cinnamon,/ with every tree of frankincense, /myrrh and aloes,/ all the rare spices” (translation by Ariel and Chana Bloch). Remember God savoring the soothing aroma of the sacrificial lamb. Savoring is about slowing down, lingering, rejoicing.
How can we reclaim the art of savoring? Often people say that it’s easier to recall sensations of trauma than it is to relive experiences of delight. Is this because we practice replaying injury but don’t have disciplines for remembering joy? Do our religious and family celebrations reflect savoring scripture or intimacy and fidelity?
“Savoring,” writes Fred Bryant, a social psychologist at Loyola University, “requires a deliberate, mindful awareness of the present moment.” His research indicates we savor in four dimensions: basking (receiving praise), thanksgiving (expressing gratitude), marveling (losing oneself in wonder and awe), and luxuriating (indulging one’s senses). “Like any cognitive-behavioral skill,” Bryant continues, “we get better at it with practice.”
In Jewish tradition, children are given a taste of honey on their tongues during the celebration of the Torah. This is to remind them that the word of God is “sweet as honey” (Ezekiel 3:3). Some Orthodox Jews say a blessing whenever they encounter a pleasant scent—connecting this tradition with offering God thanksgiving for creating fragrant trees. The Sabbath dinner table often holds a special box of spices that, passed from person to person, marks the end of the Sabbath. One inhales the joy of the Sabbath until it comes again. In Mark’s gospel we recall the sweet-woody odor of precious nard that filled the house when Mary “spoiled” Jesus’ feet with balm.
In the yard of that small Christian community in California, sitting on makeshift benches under the scent of the blossoming plums, we toast the daily miracle. There are red-tailed hawks slow dancing on updrafts. A smudge of fog creeps over the ridge. A halo of honey light illuminates the faces of these hardworking everyday disciples of Jesus. They bask in the evening blessing while giving thanks for the moments of peace and wonder, soaking in every ounce of delight. Soon the first stars will move tentatively into the field of sky.
I hear a still, small voice say, “Savor this moment. Taste and see that it is good.”
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.