Communion at Calais

Photo: Wesual Click, Unsplash

“‘Then what must we do,’ they asked him, ‘if we are to work as God would have us work?’ Jesus replied, ‘This is the work that God requires: believe in the one whom he has sent.’” — John 6:28,29

One summer I worked with a clutch of ministers-in-training to build a house on spec. The idea was that we would build this house with a loan, and then sell it for profit. It was a hot, sweltering Michigan summer, and the humidity was like nothing I had ever experienced in California. We did everything except dig the foundations. I learned a lot that summer about what goes into a structure to make it a living, humming, warm and inviting home.

I was definitely the odd man out. The others were seminary students; I was a graduate student. They had built houses before; I messed up trying to make a bird house. They were all friends of long standing; I knew only one of them slightly. They were out to make money; I was just trying to learn something practical and pay some bills.

I can’t say I brought much talent to the team. My foreman friend took a chance on me, and in the end he was disappointed. I was definitely not the brains, and not much brawn either. I think I was meant to be the one who jumped into every situation that needed an extra hand. My problem was that I couldn’t anticipate the next step in the work, hour by hour. I was like one of those guys in a pickup football game who runs downfield, waving to the quarterback. They weren’t going to risk me dropping the ball. So, I stood around a lot, trying to figure out how I could be helpful, jumping in where I could, and trying not to cut across the big plays.

We don’t always know what we should do in life and often others can’t tell us. If we have to ask, the thinking goes, we probably don’t belong there. Life is a series of tests, most of which we cannot prepare for.

***

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John is all about bread. The words “bread” or “loaves” are mentioned twenty times in the narrative. Coming off chapter five—which is about Jesus healing people in places and times that break the rules—the sixth chapter continues the running conflicts that Jesus has with the religious authorities. John’s Gospel is remarkable for the many signs that Jesus does—“signs” being John’s code for wonders, maybe even miracles, that point beyond themselves to a larger reality for whom Jesus is himself a sign, pointing inevitably and definitively to God.

In Jesus’ lexicon, “bread” and “work” go together. As chapter six opens, Jesus and his friends have landed on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. John hints that Jesus was seeking a break from the crowds who pressed their sick and hungry upon him. It was almost Passover time, so there were thousands of people swirling around the city, excitedly tracking the latest news and gossip, and chasing after any holy man who could heal and deal. Jesus and the disciples make their way up the hillside and settle down, tired after rowing across the lake. But they won’t get any quiet time. “Raising his eyes (we can almost hear him sigh), and seeing a large crowd coming toward him,” he turns to Philip and says, “Where are we to buy bread to feed these people?” It’s a test, says John to us in an aside. Jesus knew what he was going to do.

Are the disciples tested? With Jesus constantly pushing his own boundaries of faith, the disciples, his support team, can’t help being caught up in it. Like a man stepping out against the current in a surging river, Jesus extends himself further and further in trust, until he must go on in order to get back to the shore.

Philip walks right into the test. Twenty pounds, he says, wouldn’t be enough to buy everyone a little morsel. Andrew tries to be helpful: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fishes,” he says, and adds lamely, “but what is that among so many?” Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, rarely gets the ball in these scrimmages. For him to speak up is itself a test, but he rises to the occasion. Jesus graciously notes it. “Have the people sit down,” he says.

Then follows one of his greatest signs, the feeding of the five thousand. That’s five thousand men — apparently the women and children didn’t figure in the official crowd count. All are fed, and there is enough left over for twelve baskets of take-home (“shall I bring you a box for that, sir?). Licking their fingers and brushing the crumbs from their mouths, the crowd seizes on a rumor that Jesus is the final prophet to come into the world. They want a king, one who can supply them bread and fish. Jesus vanishes into the hills and the disciples push off from shore. There will be no popular uprising today.

The next day, Jesus and the disciples are together on the other side of the lake, the trip across in the night being another wonder—but that is a story for another time. Suffice it to say, that when the crowd meets him on the beach, they want a repeat of the meal.

You should be asking me for food that can last, he says. “I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever comes to me shall never be hungry, and whoever believes in me shall never be thirsty.” These are puzzling words, and the people shift from foot to foot and ask each other what he could mean. You don’t believe me, he says, but what you don’t know is that everybody who puts his faith in me and believes me, will have eternal life. I am the real bread, he says, the bread that comes from heaven.

Wait a minute, they say, we know this man. We know Joseph and Mary, his parents. We knew him when he was a kid; what’s all this about coming from heaven? Stop it! Jesus says. Stop your murmuring. I tell you the truth: the believer has already got eternal life. He looks around at all of them, gesturing with his hands. I am the bread of life, he says, as the voices begin to rise. Your ancestors ate bread in the desert and they’re all dead. I am the living bread. If you eat this bread you will live forever. What I give I give for the life of the world.

He pauses, and tries again. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood possesses eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” In the sudden silence, he looks around at them. In one of those jarring, dream-like shifts of scene, we learn these words are spoken at the synagogue in Capernaum. Many of his disciples are bewildered now, and backing away, they exclaim without irony, “This is more than we can stomach! Why listen to such words?” Off they go, some in anger, some in disappointment, others with the cutting sarcasm that betrays a passion upended.

Jesus turns to the Twelve: “Do you also want to leave me?” He searches their faces. A door creaks, somewhere there is a fading footstep. Simon Peter, his mouth suddenly dry, swallows hard. They expect me to answer for them, he thinks. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” He looks around at them and then at Jesus. “Your words are words of eternal life.” He pauses. The late afternoon sun slants across the threshold through the open door. And then more softly, “We have faith, and we know that you are the Holy One of God.”

***

I am remembering a Eucharist, a communion celebrated with friends. We three have crossed the English Channel from Dover to Calais from our college near Windsor. It is December, with an early darkness, and we are freezing. It is Friday night and we know that an island and a continent away, friends are sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. We move through the streets away from the docks until we find a shop still open, and we crowd in, our glasses fogging from the sudden warmth. Because we don’t drink wine and because all they have is Fanta, we leave moments later with a baguette and bottles in hand to look for a place to share our communion. At last we find it, the narrow vestibule of an apartment building, and sitting on the steps together we pass around chunks of warm bread as we sip from our Fanta. We read the words of the Last Supper together, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and we remember that all that is asked in this moment, all the work we need to do, is to believe the wildly improbable, beautifully paradoxical, wholly unfathomable truth that Jesus is here and now with us.

Leap and Stutter

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Piety makes for awkwardness, and where

Balance is not urgent, what one utters

May be puzzled and perfect, and we respect

Some scholars’ stutters. — Richard Wilbur, “Grace”

If there is one credo that I carry with me every day, it is that all that matters most is a matter of communication. Love, faith, hope, despair, being with someone and being apart from that one, speaking in all honesty and listening to others with a fierceness that defies obstacles—all of this is communication. And communication is, in its deepest and most profound sense, more than simply a transmission of information. It is communion.

One of the maxims of a psychology of communication is that we cannot not communicate. We’re always on, so to speak; we’re always sending out signals and we’re always receiving them, too, with varying degrees of awareness. Communication 101 says that we are not solely senders or receivers, but simultaneously senders and receivers. The warden in Cool Hand Luke was wrong when he sneeringly drawled at his prisoner (played by Paul Newman) that “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” No, there was communication between prisoner and warden; it’s just that one side of the dialectic refused to recognize as communication anything but abject subservience.

Communication and communion are based on trust—we don’t get anywhere without it. And the companions of trust are hunger, wonder, and yearning. Trust is first a verb; later, it can be a noun. The motion of someone who trusts is forward, out of oneself, a thrust outward from inside oneself. It can be a response in kind, it’s true, but the sort of trust that moves mountains and melts cold hearts is that which leaps. Trust is faith’s body.

In matters of the heart and in faith, we’re all amateurs, those who do it for the love of it. When we try to communicate with others across our self-imposed boundaries we are asking, in trust, for a certain latitude as we step into this new country. Like any traveler to a new place, we are all strangers, self-conscious and prone to mistakes, many of which we do not know we’ve committed until after they land in our midst, showering sparks and making the dogs bark. For communication to become communion, to go beyond information to intimacy, we need to recognize in the other the yearning to be understood. It sometimes gets disguised as bravado, an insouciance that covers insecurity.

With a desire to do right, to live right, to be right, we may cling to the old norms and practices, less out of understanding than to cover some weakness we might have overlooked. Trusting and leaping may seem almost ludicrous; we prefer to hedge our bets with the accustomed answers about the location of God (up and out there), our nature (inherently and seismically corrupt), and the authority of the church (incontestably the voice of God).

“Piety makes for awkwardness,” says the poet, Richard Wilbur,

“and where

Balance is not urgent, what one utters

May be puzzled and perfect, and we respect

Some scholars’ stutters.”

In grace, as in communion, we puzzle out words to each other that have the ring of authenticity, whatever they may lack in polish and certitude. Just as we might write to see what we think, so we may speak to learn what to say. “Where balance is not urgent” nobody will laugh if we fall, and though our piety may be awkward it becomes graceful as we practice it. “We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as from experience,” Emerson mused. “We paint those qualities which we do not possess.”

As originators of messages our continued communication is only as clear as our ability to interpret and adapt to those signals which we receive in response from others. What we have given to others with sincerity may be returned in like manner, but there are no guarantees. Communion is a dance of memory trusting chance, and we dare not look at our feet.

“Now we aid and influence other people simply by being who we are,” says Richard Rohr, in Falling Upward. “Human integrity probably influences and moves people from potency to action more than anything else.” It may be that our most effective communication is simply when we are with each other, body and soul. There is a silence that is fertile, on the cusp of a feeling so deep that a word of comfort spoken will open the wellsprings of weeping.

How does this desire arise for communion? Gerard Manley Hopkins calls it the “dearest freshness deep down things,” as good a description of the Holy Spirit as I have found. “How can human beings speak of God?” wonders Barbara Brown Taylor in The Seeds of Heaven. “We do not do it well, that is for sure, but because we must somehow try, we tend to talk about what we cannot say in terms of what we can—that is, we tend to describe holy things by talking about ordinary things.” Metaphors become windows, a way to see through our walls to what lies beyond.

“So much talk of God has been punitive in focus over the centuries,” writes Mark Oakley in The Splash of Words, “a God out to take revenge on human depravity. It is surely time to start talking again, as the scriptures do, of a restorative God who takes it upon himself to uphold human dignity and asks us to join him. Although we have often begun with idolatry and ended in violence, for the Christian all must start in wonder and end in humility.”

Humility is essential because everything we can say about God is incomplete, bounded, simplistic. Ludwig Wittgenstein understood the limits of language better than most preachers: ‘That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent’, he said. We don’t know how to pray, said St. Paul, but the Spirit prays for us in language that is beyond the spectrum of our understanding.

The intimate secret about God that has been known from all eternity is that Christ is the very Word of God, the ultimate metaphor for that whereof we cannot speak. For us, Christ is constantly being remade in the images we need in our time. Unlike us, he is capable of adapting for us so that he may meet us where we are. If we find ourselves on the road to Emmaus, brokenhearted and blinded by tears, he may appear alongside us, the eternal promise of the Word made flesh in space and time. Only in his disappearance do we finally see.

Thomas Merton says, “I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

Richard Wilbur, with a cheerful wink, assures us that:

“To be unchecked

Is needful then: choose, challenge,

jump, poise, run…

Nevertheless, the praiseful, graceful soldier

Shouldn’t be fired by his gun.”

So, let us “come boldly before the throne of God,” and in that spirit hold our communion with each other through trust. A certain exuberance is called for in the presence of corrosive cynicism. In a time of lies we hunger for the truths that set us free.

Photo: Nick Fewings, Unsplash.com

Every Breath We Take

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1 (NRSV)

According to the Gospel of John the world begins with the Word. Communication requires two, not just one. The Tao Te Ching, the book of wisdom in Taoism, notes that:

The Tao gives birth to One
One gives birth to Two
Two gives birth to Three
Three gives birth to all things

In the astonishing clarity of the prologue to the gospel the writer gives us three phrases that build in intensity, each one leaping farther into the unknown.

“In the beginning was the Word.”

Not simply a word, but the Word. It’s a Word that is mysterious, yet so encompassing that the singular article exists to create the One that is all and communes with all.

But lest we think that this Word is alone, there is from the beginning a simple preposition, “with,” that evokes the image of relationship.

“And the Word was with God.”

This is not just proximity, an accident of spatial congruence that creates a false sense of belonging. To be with someone implies a confluence, a commingling, a relationship that continues even when the two are separated. “Are you with someone?” we ask the stranger at a party or a gathering. ‘Yes,’ comes the reply, ‘I’m just waiting for my friend.’ “And the Word was with God.”

Then comes the third phrase that jolts us with its audacity.

“And the Word was God.”

Not only is the Word with God, the Word is God. And it implies that the eternal One creates out of desire: it takes two to tango, it takes two to communicate. Bruce Springsteen and the Book of Proverbs say, ‘Two hearts are better than one.’

Everything begins with communication, with the Word. Communication gives rise to communion with the other, the one to whom we turn, without whom we are but silence beating the air, the sound of one hand clapping, a tree falling forever in a forest born before sound and light.

Everything and everyone begins with the Word; not just a word but the Word, and the Word is life and light and love. It brings us into being for each other, for without each other we are simply syllables looking for completion. Our lives against the vastness of the light of the stars are so fragile that we are drawn to each other in order to reflect God’s glory to each other.

The Word was and is God and thus is there from the beginning. The beginning is not just the beginning of us or of our glorious, fragile world, but a beginning of which we cannot conceive because we have no way of grasping how time can expand in all directions at once. We think in linear fashion: front to back, up and down, left to right, start to finish, but this beginning takes us back and back until, gasping, we are drawn in through the first word to some place infinitely beyond the beginning point.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That is a description of communication in action, of communion in process. That Word creates community within itself, and every time we open our mouths to speak we take on the risk to become one with that community, a community that exists within us and without which we are not complete. But as Thomas Merton reminds us, “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, beyond speech, beyond concept.” The Word draws us into communion.

Communion is that possibility that exists between people—the eternal possibility—that we may actually come to understand one another, the first step toward loving another. In all our faltering attempts at communication, with every word that rises up from within us, that possibility is there. It is not yet embodied, not yet made flesh until breathed out in our words, but it is there. So in every breath we take—no matter what the word is—in that breath not yet become a word lies the hope for true understanding between you and I. Between Sunni and Shiite, Protestant and Catholic, homophobic and gay, progressive and conservative, man and woman, Israeli and Palestinian, Tutsi and Hutu, sex worker and client, border guard and immigrant.

Once upon a time God came to this earth; the Word became flesh and lived here with us. Now the Word continues in our communion with one another. The infinite possibility for peace is literally within us at every moment if we will imagine our words to be the Word that came into the world to bring us light.

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”