To Sit with an Onion

By

Yesterday, the heaviness of a world under a global pandemic became an almost unbearable weight on my soul. Social media led me down hallways of suffering, of fear, of self-righteousness. Someone tried to pull me down a YouTube rabbit hole and another pulled me toward a debate in a comment section. I’m embarrassed by the amount of time I spent yesterday being yanked around from one talking head to the next; and also by the amount of time I spent forming rebuttals in my head and arguments I would counter with, should I ever have the courage to voice what I think Christians ought to be saying right now—or, maybe more importantly, not saying.

I was in a sad state of affairs. The virus was wreaking havoc on bodies, the fear was eating away at both our souls and our economy, and the desire to be right about things was destroying our ability to see our neighbors as people. I left our new (virtual) public square weary of the world God created. I thought He must be weary, too.

After getting the kids in bed, I put my phone on the nightstand and gladly traded it out for Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb. It’s my second read-through, even more savory than the first. I slid my thumb into the gap between pages and let my pen roll out, which was marking my place at Chapter Two: The First Session. Ah, the onion chapter. If you haven’t read The Supper of the Lamb, you have a real gem waiting for you. It is part cookbook, part memoir, part theology, part philosophy… It’s actually quite hard to describe what it is, but what it’s like is like having the most colorful and enjoyable guest at your dinner table. The entire book is a recipe for one meal: Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times, but it is dealt with leisurely and unhurried, like any good dinner party. Take for example Chapter Two: The First Session, in which Capon asks the reader to sit with the first ingredient, an onion, for 60 minutes.

I closed the book for a minute and thought about the audacity of the request. Yesterday, I had a lot of people telling me how I should be spending an hour: Watch this video; Read this article; Google this name; Do your own research. But Capon was the first person to ask me to have a session with an inanimate object. Admittedly, I didn’t leave the comfort of my bed to retrieve an onion, but I did spend an hour considering an imaginary one with the help of Capon’s words. “You are convinced, of course,” he begins, “that you know what an onion is.”

It is because God made the world out of joy that He will bring it back Home in love.

Elizabeth Harwell

A novel virus, no. I can humbly admit my gaps in knowledge there. But surely, I knew an onion. As it turns out, Capon’s assumptions about my arrogance proved true. Do you know what an onion is? Have you considered the “elegant dryness” and “understated display of wealth” of its outer skin? Have you thought about the colors or the nestling structure of its insides? Have you compared it to cathedrals or delighted in its watery make-up? I considered the onion and it changed my narrative. Sitting with a real thing—a thought of God that I could hold in my hands— reminded me that He is not weary of the world that He made, but He delights in it. He likes the world, and therefore we exist.

Capon concludes the onion session with these words:

Perhaps now you have seen at least dimly that the uniquenesses of creation are the result of continuous creative support, of effective regard by no mean lover. He likes onions, therefore they are. The fit, the colors, the smell, the tensions, the tastes, the textures, the lines, the shapes are a response, not to some forgotten decree that there may as well be onions as turnips, but to His present delight—His intimate and immediate joy in all you have seen, and in the thousand other wonders you do not even suspect.

—Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb

His present delight. I drifted to sleep in the comfort of those words—the God who holds the world together also delights in that world. He has good reason to preserve it.

When I woke up this morning, I decided it was necessary to have my own session with an onion. And yet, unfortunately, our pantry was bare. Then I remembered that I had already done this exercise in a writing class I took with Jonathan Rogers. In this particular exercise, Dr. Rogers had asked us to sit with an inanimate object, like Capon’s onion, and to consider it for what it was—not for what we thought we knew it to be. I had chosen a mussel shell, and this morning I pulled that essay and that shell back out to have another practice in focused consideration.

The blue mussel shell is displayed, piled amongst other shells from a trip to Maine, in an heirloom silver dish in our dining room. I picked it up for study, wiggling it out from under and scraping it against the rest of its transplanted neighborhood. It was cold in my hands, like the glassy waters that bit my toes when I first bent over to take it from its cobblestone carpet on Maine’s shore. Separated from its mirrored partner, the half-shell spooned the curve of my palm and my thumb moved to bed where the mussel once lay. The inside is pearly smooth—without blemish smooth, as if it must be the ruling line by which all smooth things are measured.

I moved the shell under a lamp, because the little pearl valley deserved illuminated consideration. The inside shone milk white with a puddle of blueberry blue bleeding out from the center and inking towards the north and south of this long and hollow cave. The iridescence summoned my eyes to follow the jumps of light, giving gifts of color with each tiny twist to the right or left. Here is secret beauty—only for the delight of the humble mussel and his Maker!

What an entire world to the mussel who called this shell home. I like knowing that no other mussel will move in, plastering over nail holes and hanging his own pictures. No one else would have seen his inner sanctuary, but he and His Maker, had I not collected it on the shore. A secret joy. God’s present delight.

We are not some forgotten decree that there may as well be Earth as Jupiter. We are His very good idea and His present delight.

Elizabeth Harwell

There are no YouTube videos, or forum discussions, or peer-reviewed articles that could have given my feet such sure landing in the way the mussel shell did this morning. That shell represented one of thousands (millions?) of pearly homes that will never lay bare in front of human eyes—miles of ocean floor, covered in secret delights, that began as thoughts in my Father’s mind. We humans can be so self-important that we’ve never considered that God is enjoying parts of creation that none of us will ever see. Could the proverbial tree actually fall without someone there to hear it? Yes, it can, and it does. Sitting with that shell allowed me to stick my head through the door of a secret room, where I could enjoy God’s quiet mirth. His delight in the world does not depend on any audience, and there is such comfort in that sort of steadfastness. Imagine the security of being able to see your dad smiling over you, when he thought you were sleeping. Being reaffirmed in God’s love for His world stirred up hope in my soul: It is because God made the world out of joy that He will bring it back Home in love.

When we delight in the world with its Maker, we can also grieve it properly. Do we feel the world is broken? We certainly do. Should we speak against the brokenness? We absolutely must. We love it too much to let it suffer. We love our neighbor too much to look away.

But before we allow ourselves to believe that God has given up on us or has grown weary with us, we need not look further than our backyards to see the ways in which He is tethered to this world in delight. Genesis tells us that He crowned His work “good.” The Psalms tell us that the earth echoes this joy back to Him in song. Revelation tells us that He cares so much about our world that He’s not going to scrap it in the end but make it new. As Capon puts it, He will “bring the city Home.”

God so loved the world.

I’m asking you, with Capon, won’t you leave the public square for an hour to sit with an onion? A mussel shell? A pinecone? Your child’s eyelashes? Your neighbor’s smile?

We are not some forgotten decree that there may as well be Earth as Jupiter. We are His very good idea and His present delight. Take hope, friends. Run back into the public square carrying a renewed delight in this world that God made, and let your speech be seasoned with the hope that He will not—cannot—forsake it. He loves it too much.


5 Comments

  1. Lisa Yancey

    LOVED this article by Elizabeth Harrell! What comforting truth, easily forgotten during these difficult days!

  2. Emma Fox

    @emmacfox

    What a well-written, grounding meditation! I’ve been reading Psalm 147, where the psalmist encourages Israel’s exiles to consider concrete reminders of God’s provisions large and small: this is the God who both covers the world in snow like ashes and takes time to feed a nestful of croaking young ravens. When the world is sick in so many ways, it’s easy to just want to toss it away. What a good reminder to slow down and take delight in it instead!

  3. Anita Hickinbotham

    I loved reading Capon’s book several years ago and this essay (my first visit to The Rabbit Room) this afternoon.  Thank you for calling me back to remember the words and the bigger picture of which we are all a part.     

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