The banquet is laid, yet nobody comes is a loose translation from a parable in the New Testament about a king who put on a feast for his friends, but they all excused themselves from the celebration. It appears in several versions, each one different, none with a clear, unambiguous meaning. Still, the line as I heard it — in a talk by veteran photographer Dewitt Jones — is clear enough: there’s a bounteous world both out there and in here just waiting to be noticed, if only we’re willing to stop and savor it.
I heard Dewitt speak many years ago (you can catch up with him here, or find his column in Outdoor Photographer magazine), when he cited the “banquet” line. On a photo assignment in Alaska, he was waiting on a country road for a rendezvous with a helicopter to take him to a remote area. As he looked around, he noticed an old farmhouse across the meadow — and was struck by the most sublime landscape he’d ever seen. Captured on film, his photo accompanied an essay on John Muir in the April, 1973 issue of National Geographic. He summed up the experience — unnoticed beauty right there in front of him — with the line he’d heard from one of his teachers, the banquet is laid yet nobody comes.
That phrase hit me like a sledgehammer. All around me, every moment of my life, lies a banquet, a feast of wonder, whether it’s my hands typing on this keyboard, the sun’s journey across the sky, water gushing from a faucet, the sound of wind in trees, my relentless heartbeat. Yet most of the time I don’t notice, I don’t bother to come to the banquet. Privileged as I am—white, retired, healthy, happily partnered, on social security — it’s not like I don’t have the luxury of time and freedom to do so. Although, of course, this stopping and noticing is a universal option, freely available to all, however weighed down and overwhelmed by the craziness going on all around.
When I do remember to stop, it can be magic. Like early morning a couple of days ago when Louisa and I were walking through the tall grasses atop Schoolhouse Peak, off Bald Hills Road. The wind was all but visible, bending the long stems to a syncopated rhythm, inviting to mind Irish poet Louis MacNeice’s line Whose mind is like the wind on a sea of wheat… (referring to Nancy Coldstream, the capricious woman with whom he was having a doomed affair). Here’s as best as I could capture it on my iPhone:
For a few minutes, it was perfect. Wind, grass, clouds, a pause in mental chatter, gulping warm air deeply into my lungs, heart racing after the climb up there, it was as good as it gets. Later I had this fantasy of a BBC-accented voice booming down from the clouds, “I say, you down there! Come in Evans! Your time is up!” And I’d look up and say, “Ma’am, what perfect timing. I’m ready to leave right now with no regrets and nothing but gratitude.” It was one of those moments when I had everything I wanted and knew it…
…as opposed to most of my life, when the opposite is true. Michel, an old buddy during my civil engineering days, would sometimes drop by my office. He’d stick his head round my door and ask with a wry smile, “Still struggling?” And if I were honest, I’d answer ruefully, “Yep, Michel, still struggling.”
Seems to me that the banquet is always laid, waiting for us to come. There’s no admission fee, nothing to do other than show up and notice. That morning on Schoolhouse Peak and those other special moments, I did come and I did notice.
Perhaps all I really did was stop struggling.