Lessoning in Humility
"My dear, then I will serve."
George Herbert, Love (III)
Babette’s Feast was a very intriguing movie. The flashback style of the movie made it keep your attention. However, I found the implications of the movie the most interesting. The theme of learning humility spoke to me in a powerful way. In my own Christian journey I find that it is much easier to have all the answers and "serve" others than it is to be humble, ask questions, and let someone else serve me.
Babette is a French Catholic taken in by two very devout Danish Protestant women. The feast that Babette serves for the women and their guests is of the finest cuisine, but the fact is lost on the guests at the table except for the general. It is almost as if Martina and Philippa, the Protestant women, feel that their "religiousness" supersedes that of anyone different. They are not pretentious in their faith, but subtly they "help" everyone else without allowing people to "serve" them. Even when Babette is serving the dinner, they still believe they are doing her a favor by eating it out of duty and compassion. Martina and Philippa do not realize until their guests are gone and they are alone with Babette, just how costly the meal was. It wasn’t so much the monetary aspect of such a meal, but that this one meal cost Babette a chance to return to France.
This theme of learning to let others serve is also present in the sisters’ romantic relationships. Martina and Philippa are extremely beautiful women who are both sought at different times by wealthy, influential men. Martina is courted by a general who falls deeply in love with her, but somehow the viewer is made to feel that she is so devoted to her faith that she ends the relationship. Philippa has a beautiful voice that attracts a famous opera singer who trains her in vocal performance, but when he proposes marriage she turns him down. We are made to feel that somehow the men could never live up to or attain the spiritual plane in which the sisters live. However, the men both return in the story in the form of advocates for the less fortunate. The opera singer implores the sisters to take in Babette after her family has been ravaged by the French revolution. The general appears later in the story as a guest at Babette’s feast. Only this general is able to realize how special the dinner is and how much it must have cost. The general shows the identity of Babette by revealing that she is the famous French chef, whose cuisine is world renown. In the end, it seems as if the general and the opera singer have a clearer view of the idea of servanthood than do Martina and Philippa.
The message of humility that is evident Babette’s Feast is a message for all of us. By trying to be servants, Martina and Philippa miss opportunities to be served by others. The image is that of Peter’s refusal to let Jesus wash his feet. Jesus chides Peter for not allowing himself to be served. The general and the opera singer become teachers that the sisters learn from. They are shown that although others might come from a different religious tradition, their hearts can be pure and compassionate The movie is not meant to make the sisters look conceited or self-absorbed. It simply is a gentle lesson in humility. Martina and Philippa are not perfect, they are human, but they are also God-fearing women who honestly tried to follow his example. They were a little misguided, but at the end they realize how much they have really been given in addition to what they gave of themselves. We must learn that we do not have all the answers; we need others to hold us accountable, help us up when we stumble, and to learn from.