Category Archives: Eucharist
“When we come to the Table in Communion we are called to take time to be together. The Eucharist ought not to have an express lane. It takes time: time to serve the elements of The Meal, time to stand in line, time to think and pray, time to prepare to eat together, and time to remember how we got there.”
Milton Brasher-Cunningham, Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal, New York: Morehouse, 2012, 48.
If I ever talk of daily food as a sacrament — a visible sign of grace — there are those who grimace. They are concerned, I think, that in casting the net so broadly I am in danger of diminishing the real worth of the ‘sacramental’ and, especially, the more formal sacraments of the church.
My own view is that to allow the sacramental to be limited to particular church rituals, no matter how rich, is to diminish the sacred possibilities inherent in all of earthly life. Even worse, when it comes to faith that implicates every aspect of our lives, we let ourselves off the hook far too easily.
In regard to food, Wendell Berry says it succinctly but well:
‘To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such a desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness and others to want.’
Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, Counterpoint, 2009, 281.
After reviewing Keeping the Feast yesterday, some words of poetry from the author
we pass the silver plate
of broken bread with
less confidence than
we pass the peace
easier perhaps to hug
than to admit to our hunger
we take and eat without
a word and wait for
the wine’s weaker friend
shot glasses of salvation
we place the empties
in the pew racks causing
the clicking sound of
solidarity to rattle
our hearts and shake
awake the resonance
that runs through all
the saints and suppers
that we might remember
that we might be one
Milton Brasher-Cunningham, Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal, Moorehouse Publishing, 2012, 8.
‘We make bread so that it shall be possible for mankind to have more than bread.’
So said the ecologist John Stewart Collis back in the 1970s. He’s right. Food is never just about the food. In fact, when we write about food as an end in itself, it’s likely we’ve misunderstood our subject.
That critique could never be levelled at the North America writer and poet Milton Brasher-Cunningham, author of the beautiful book Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal. Though a gifted cook, host and a lover of food who never strays far from the table, Milton points us beyond food to deeper things, and often in the most poetic and challenging terms.
Part memoir and part theological reflection, this is a book by a person of faith, one deeply committed to the church and its sacraments and who does not shy away from either. But one does not have to share that faith to find inspiration in Milton’s words. He writes of the formative power of ritual in eating, the nurturing of community and memory through meals, the sacredness of story written and owned at the table, and the world-shaping fidelity expressed in the routines of cooking and sharing.
Keeping the Feast is a gentle book, but one that gets under the skin. Milton shares his soul in the way he writes, and in so doing touches ours. If you instinctively value the table as a place of community, this book will remind you of why you do. If you love to cook, not to impress but embrace, this book will make you smile. And if you are a person of faith who participates in the church’s ritual meal—‘the signature dish of our faith’—this book will remind you of the rich and formative sacrament that is yours.
Indeed, bread is more than bread. It leads us to the feast of life.
‘The point of life is not to be right, or safe, or famous, comfortable, or rich, or powerful. None of those is a sign of success, of God’s favor or significance, particularly when our power and wealth and safety require someone else to be poor and weak and scared. The point of life is to be together. To love one another—all the one anothers—and to struggle against everything that leads us away from that love.’
Last week I attended Mass at St Francis here in the city. It was not a planned thing. I just happened to be in the neighbourhood. It’s a familiar place. In fact, I used to take my students there each year. In an introduction to spirituality, we visited several churches of various brands, St Francis included.
I always leave St Francis both uplifted and mystified. On this occasion the officiating priest was an endearing, slightly grumpy man, past retirement I would think. Yet it felt like I was in good, familiar hands. And, as usual, the place was standing-room-only.
No doubt, there’s something about the Catholic Mass. Though I often feel a bit on the outer — I never do know when to kneel or sit or stand — there is a wonderful certainty in it. Whether I feel anything or not, the ‘magic’ happens, the bell rings, God shows up. None of this symbolism stuff … this is the real deal!
That said, what bugged me this time around was not doctrinal or even profound. It was simply the stinginess of the whole thing — the bread I mean, the wafers they dole out like carefully portioned medications. And the pour souls who attend hold out their hands as if, like Oliver, they come begging for just a little more.
Sure enough, it’s not just a Catholic thing. We Baptists do stingy too. Visiting someplace else only amplifies it. Communion means the tiniest bits of bread, pre-plated and barely a centimetre square. Even if we occasionally share a loaf, we Baptists are conditioned to pick off the slightest morsel. To do otherwise feels almost carnal.
Whatever happened to the feast? Where is abundance? What about grace lavishly given? The unbridled hospitality of God? The pull-up-a-chair kind of welcome that God extends through Christ?
Several years ago, I came across this poem in the journal Daughters of Sarah, written by Lauren Mittermann. It says something of what I feel. It’s called Lunch with God:
I’ve eaten at this private club before.
Maitre d’ promises full satisfaction,
“one size fits all.”
Every week I try to make eye contact
with some man slapping a flat wafer on my tongue.
Never was much for fast food.
Always looking for Mom’s home cooking,
a woman’s touch.
Remember the day
we ate bread in Ephraim?
Standing on the water’s edge
I stretched my arms high over head,
looked into the sun,
offered thick crusts of French bread to the sky.
You, Companion, sent gulls
to carry the bread in their bodies
up into heaven.
The popular English philosopher Alain de Botton has gotten a mountain of press over his book Religion for Atheists, and not all of it glowing. I’ve commented on it more generally here. But what he says about the table is worth a separate mention.
In one of his early chapters, de Botton argues that embracing the stranger is a distinctive of genuine community. With its demise in daily life, he wonders if our disregard of the stranger picked up speed as we ‘ceased communally to honour our gods.’
History teaches us, he says, that as people unite in belief, worship and a common confession of dependence, other differences of class, race, economic or social standing recede. De Botton then looks at the religious ritual of the mass and the role it plays in drawing disparate people together, creating an expression of community rare in secular society. Where are the tables like this one, he asks, apart from religious belief?
According to de Botton, while there is no shortage of venues where we eat together, there is a distinct lack of such places that actively encourage the turning of strangers into friends. Indeed, most common eating rituals demand no level of transformation at all: ‘Patrons will tend to leave restaurants much as they had entered them, the experience having merely reaffirmed existing tribal divisions.’
In a restaurant no less than in a home, when the meal itself — the texture of the escalopes or the moistness of the courgettes — has become the main attraction, we can be sure that something has gone awry.
Sitting down at a table with a group of strangers has the incomparable and odd benefit of making it a little more difficult to hate them with impunity. Prejudice and ethnic strife feed off abstraction.
With this critique in mind, de Botton imagines a table in secular society (he calls it the Agape restaurant) where our fear of strangers recedes, a place where ‘the poor would eat with the rich, the black with the white, the orthodox with the secular, the bipolar with the balanced, workers with managers, scientists with artists. The claustrophobic pressure to derive all of our satisfactions from our existing relationships would cease, as would our desire to gain status by accessing the so-called elite circles.’
Having imagined such a non-religious place, de Botton concludes by affirming the role religious communities like mine still play through our distinctive rituals of the shared table:
Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism have all made significant contributions to mainstream politics, but their relevance to the problems of community are arguably never greater than when they depart from the modern political script and remind us that there is also value to be had in standing in a hall with a hundred acquaintances and singing a hymn together or in ceremoniously washing a stranger’s feet or in sitting at a table with neighbours and partaking of lamb stew and conversation, the kinds of rituals which, as much as the deliberations inside parliaments and law courts, are what help to hold our fractious and fragile societies together.
While I certainly have doubts about the real possibility of de Botton’s imaginary table, I am also conscious of how far our religious tables can be from the same possibility. Despite their radical nature, all too often we have made these tables tools of separation and exclusion rather than places of open welcome and hospitality. In this, de Botton’s words are challenging.