“With Bread”: The Etymology & Theology of Companionship

I’m a bit of a nerd. For instance, when I was younger, I, like many youngsters, memorized the alphabet. But that wasn’t enough for my young mind. I memorized not only the individual letters of the alphabet, but their corresponding numbers. So, A’s corresponding number is 1, B’s is 2, C’s is 3, and so on. This might sound simple enough, but wait, there’s more. I took it upon myself to memorize the sums and products of adding and multiplying letters by their corresponding numbers. With very little hesitation I could come up with the letters, numbers, and mathematical results when asked. Surprisingly, not too many people were looking for this information.

Fast forward to present day and I am still rather nerdy. (Thankfully, my wife has a soft spot for nerds.) I love words and their origins. Etymology is a hobby of mine that is – in my mind – worth its weight in gold. Mining the ins and outs of a word opens up meaning and interpretation. Like a flower in bloom, examining word origins, contexts, and histories allows for vibrant colors and nuanced designs previously hidden from view to emerge.

A few years ago, I was purchasing some bread from a grocery store for a shared meal. It was thinly sliced and aromatic. Perfectly baked crust protected the soft innards waiting for us to pluck apart. It was the kind of bread you should probably buy two loaves: one for the car ride home and one for the meal. Yet, what struck me on this particular occasion was the name of the bread. It wasn’t entitled “Italian Bread” although it was. Rather than translating the Italian, they had aptly and simply left it as, Pane.

And this triggered my etymological impulses.

Pane is a word derived from Latin meaning “bread.” It has a long and variegated history as it has been paired with a multitude of other terms. Nearly all of them center on bread of some sort.

The interesting thing is that the prefix com- means “with” stemming from the original Latin cum. When cum is used, it indicates a conjoining of two things. Pairings, groups, usage of items are all placed in relationship with the term cum.

Together cum + pane give us companion. Thus, your companions are the ones whom you are together “with bread.” Literally. Again, the etymology of companion opens our eyes to its history in that its Latin ancestor used to mean “messmate.” For the Latin speaking world and its cognates, companion wasn’t a general term. Your companions were the ones you ate with, the ones your broke bread with, the ones you shared a common table.

Companion points beyond itself to indicate the kinds of relationships eating together produces. Strangers and acquaintances become companions through eating together. Families flourish as they sit face-to-face sharing what is provided. Meals have been – and still are – the primary means of breaking down relational walls between folks. They are often the glue within communities due to their inherent hospitable nature.

The question then becomes, “With whom do we regularly share meals?” For those of us who claim to be Jesus-followers, this is a question central to our faith and discipleship. All too often, however, it has been relegated to a peripheral position in the life of faith. For many it has fallen too far down the list of Jesus-priorities, so much so, that it has become invisible for many. In my opinion, if there is one central practice we must reinvigorate and reincorporate into the life of the Church it is eating together. And, it seems, etymologically speaking, if we are to do this as companions, we must be true to the word by breaking bread together.

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Want to read the rest of this post?

You can read it at Missio Alliance where it was originally posted. There I discuss the postures and practices of presence, vulnerability, mutuality, and creation care inherent to shared meals and companionship. You can find the rest of it here: “‘With Bread’: The Etymology & Theology of Companionship”.

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Henri Nouwen and Hospitality

“In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found.

Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm. But still – that is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.

…if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential it is the concept of hospitality. It is one of the richest biblical terms that can deepen and broaden our insight in our relationships to our fellow human beings. Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home, but they also tell us that  guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host…When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them. Then, in fact, the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of the new found unity.

Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit. It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their God and their way. The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.

Indeed, more often than not rivalry and competition, desire for power and immediate results, impatience and frustration, and most of all, plain fear make their forceful demands and tend to full every possible empty corner of our life. Empty space tends to create fear. As long as our minds, hearts and hands are occupied we can avoid confronting the painful questions, to which we never gave much attention and which we do not want to surface. ‘Being busy’ has become a status symbol, and most people keep encouraging each other to keep their body and mind in constant motion. From a distance, it appears that we try to keep each other filled with words and actions, without tolerance for a moment of silence. Hosts often feel that they have to talk all the time to their guests and entertain then with things to do, places to see and people to visit. But by filling up every empty corner and occupying every empty time their hospitality becomes more oppressive than revealing.”

– Henri Nouwen in the chapter “Creating Space for Strangers” in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life