There are two stories that look at how we respond when confronted by grace. The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis was published in 1956. Babette’s Feast was written by Isak Dinesen in 1958. Perhaps the first was the springboard for the second.
In the last book of seven from The Chronicles of Narnia, the children find themselves going through a stable door into a beautiful land of blue sky and flowers and trees with sublime fruit to eat. Lewis describes how one group present, the dwarfs, believes a dank, dark stable surrounds them. Lucy tries to talk to them and show them they are outside but they can’t see it, experience it, or understand it. She is distraught and when Aslan arrives, she asks him if anything can be done to help them. “I will show you the limits of what I can do,” Aslan says.
The dwarfs misunderstand everything he tries. He sets a feast before them of tasty food and rich wine and to them it seems to be rotten table scraps. They start fighting amongst themselves as they try to grab what they perceive is a raw cabbage leaf or old turnip, blind to the warmth and bounty of the sunny land. Aslan finds it impossible to pour his love upon them. He tells Lucy, “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison, and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”
Dinesen’s story reflects upon grace through Babette, a fugitive in need of shelter with a letter of introduction to two sisters, daughters of a Danish Lutheran pastor now deceased. Thankful to serve the sisters however she can in exchange for a place to live and recuperate from losing her family, Babette takes over the domestic chores, freeing them to concentrate on their father’s work.
The years go by and Babette comes into some lottery winnings. She asks the sisters if she can make a dinner to honour their father’s birth one hundred years earlier. Though they are reluctant to accept her offer, they don’t know how to turn her down as she has never asked them for anything. She prepares a fabulous feast, but the church members have agreed ahead of time they will not show any pleasure in the meal, it being wrong to enjoy earthly things, according to their beliefs.
For many years now the little church’s membership has been dwindling. Dinesen describes it:
From a past half a century back, when the unshepherded sheep had been running astray in the mountains, uninvited dismal guests pressed through the opening on the heels of the worshippers and seemed to darken the little rooms and to let in the cold. The sins of the old Brothers and Sisters came, with late piercing repentance like a toothache, and the sins of others against them came back with a bitter resentment, like a poisoning of the blood.
Amid the swirling of bile lands the sheer generosity and grace of the meal they are determined to resist. However, it overwhelms them, and they find their differences dissolving and a newfound joy taking hold.
The sisters are awed to learn Babette’s lottery money, a sum so large they cannot begin to fathom it, has been used up by the dinner. When she wins the money, they expect Babette will return to her home country of France. It turns out she never had any intention of going back to the country where she was a famed chef; her home lies with them. Throughout her years with them, Babette keeps the knowledge to herself that kings and nobles celebrated her gift of cooking, but when she bestows it upon the guests, only one, a visiting general, recognizes her gifts.
Grace, a gift not always welcomed with ease even when presented on a silver platter, comes in surprising ways, ever new.
“Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! That which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!
General Löwenhielm making a speech to honour Babette’s gift of grace in the movie Babette’s Feast
Off the Beaten Path:
The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia
Babette’s Feast movie trailer: https://youtu.be/H5w9skKcdnA
Babette’s Feast short story by Isak Dinesen (PDF): https://www1.villanova.edu/content/dam/villanova/mission/faith/CFL_Fall2019DinnerReading/Babettes-Feast.pdf