THE SACRED MEAL. The Ancient Practices Series. By Nora Gallagher. Foreword by Phyllis Tickle. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.
The Eucharist or Lord’s Supper is central to the Christian faith, and to some traditions it’s more central than in others. For Protestants it is one of two primary sacraments or means of grace. For Disciples, like Episcopalians, it is a defining practice. And Disciples might find the reflections of an Episcopalian very helpful in our own exploration of this central practice.
It is also an ancient Christian practice, by which we as Christians get in touch with the holy. While we might not think of it as a spiritual practice – in the same way as prayer or fasting, Nora Gallagher offers us a way of looking at this activity in just that way. Like the other spiritual practices, it serves “to gradually move us out of one place and into another” (p. 15).
Nora Gallagher is not an academically trained theologian nor is she a member of the clergy. She is, however, an Episcopal layperson, Eucharistic minister, a licensed Episcopal preacher, and a writer. She is best known for writing spiritually defined memoirs such as Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith. In this brief book, Nora brings to bear both her experience as a practitioner of the Christian faith and her vocation as a writer of memoirs. This is very much a lived theology of the Eucharist, one that emerges from her experiences as a member of Santa Barbara’s Trinity Episcopal Church. In many ways this book is a perfect expression of the sort of theological exploration that Philip Clayton describes in his new book Transforming Christian Theology (Fortress, 2010).
As I write this review, I must acknowledge that I know Nora, and several of the experiences that she narrates – I was either in attendance at or something very similar. Thus, as she narrated her own story, in a very real way I found myself in the story. I know the people, the churches, the events. This may skew the way I read the book, but my sense is that Nora writes in a such a way that you need not know or have met Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer or the Rev. Mark Asman to be pulled into the story. One needn’t have participated in an interfaith Sukkoth celebration led by Arthur or an interfaith breaking of the Ramadan fast at a local Presbyterian church. That I may have been in attendance, doesn’t change the fact that Nora writes in such a way that we are drawn into a life-changing spiritual practice, one that leads from an internal encounter with the one lifted up in the Eucharist, to a life of service to the world.
To give one specific example of this connection between worship and service, Nora describes a soup kitchen that was launched by members of the Trinity Episcopal Church to serve the homeless community. That soup kitchen would be the precursor to a much larger community-based outreach to the homeless, but it began in a church, in a small group or base community as they call it at Trinity, that encompassed the sharing in the Lord’s Supper. Because of the theology inherent in the Episcopal tradition, the elements used had been previously consecrated, but Nora links the Table of the Lord to the table set out for the homeless in a church’s parish hall. That is an important link that needs to be lifted up.
As one reads the book, one encounters a personal story – Nora’s – and a tradition’s story. She describes in some detail the theology inherent in the Eucharist – speaking of the way in which the service of Communion involves a time of waiting, a time of receiving, and a point afterwards. In the first stage, we examine ourselves, what we’ve been doing, confessing our sins if need be, reading ourselves to receive the bread and cup. From there we move to a point of reception, and this comes to us as a gift, as a matter of grace. By receiving the elements of communion, we must open our hands to receive them, and that makes us vulnerable. She writes of this step:
It’s dangerous, opening your hands. You don‘t know what will end up in them. This may have been the smartest thing Jesus ever did. He must have thought, How can make them step into the unknown? How can I get them to let in some surprise? I know, I’ll figure out a way for them to put their hands out in front of them, empty (p. 45).
By doing this, by stretching out our empty hands, we acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers nor the power to accomplish the things of God.
After we receive the bread and the cup, a point at which Nora suggests that we are being invited into heaven with all its glories, we return home to the realities of life. As she seeks to understand the point afterward, she tells the story of an interfaith celebration of Sukkoth, that was led by a mutual friend, Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer. The point that she wants to make is that the Sukkoth shelters are temporary, serving to remind the Jewish people that theirs is a nomadic past. Rituals, such as Sukkoth, Communion, and Ramadan, help us in a very real and bodily way reconnect with an ancient event.
The Practice of communion reminds Christians of a meal and many meals shared by followers of a man who wanted them to see a new kingdom. The practices are “after words,” after the events are long in the past, and whatever words attached to them may no longer be accurately recalled. The practice remains to keep us in tune with what the original event pointed toward and so that we can add to its meaning and history (pp. 55-56).
By returning to this event through this practice, the events and words of long ago seep into our cells. The point of regular practice is that our bodies and minds and spirits are continually trained for encountering the God revealed in this practice. That allows us to be transformed by our encounters with the holy.
In the course of these chapters we are brought into a better understanding of the sacrament that is so central to our faith. She makes it personal and reminds us that it is something, that if we are able and willing to receive from it, a life-changing practice. It is not simply a ritual, it is something that prepares us to go out into the world, knowing that the Christ who is present in the bread and cup as body and blood (not in a literal sense, but in a spiritual and mystical sense) is also present everywhere in the cosmos. It makes Jesus present, so that he might reveal to us the true nature of God. And as God is present everywhere in the world through Christ, we who are the body of Christ become the “ongoing incarnation.”
The Communion may be an ancient practice, but it has very present implications, and Nora does a wonderful job taking us into those implications, so that we might be transformed for service in the world. This is a book that can be appreciated and enjoyed by the newest of believers and the ones who have traveled the road the longest. I think it can be especially useful to the one who finds the Eucharist to be simply a ritual, something done simply because we’re supposed to do it on occasion. As one who comes from a tradition that practices weekly communion, I am reminded here of the breadth of meaning found in the sacrament. Those who don’t see the point of frequent participation in the Sacrament might discover a reason to rethink that idea. If practice makes perfect, then we all have a lot of practice to put in!
Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, MI. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Seminary, edits the journal Sharing the Practice, and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.