There is a story told about a Jewish farmer who, because he was carelessness, had to spend a Sabbath day in his field. Preoccupied with his work, he had let the sun go down without going home. Now, being a pious believer, he was not allowed to travel until sunset the next day. So he spend the day in the field, by himself, missing both the Seder meal with his family and the services at the synagogue. When he finally did return home the next evening, he was met by an irate wife and an equally upset Rabbi. The Rabbi chided him for his carelessness and asked him: “What did you do in the field by yourself all day? Did you at least pray?”
“Rabbi,” the farmer answered, “I’m not a very smart man and I don’t know many prayers. All the prayers I knew, I said in five minutes. What I did the rest of the day was simply recite the alphabet. I left it up to God to make some words out of all those letters.”
We leave it to God to make the words out of the alphabet of our lives. There are few better ways to describe how the Eucharist works in terms of forming us into one heart in Christ. The Eucharist, as we know, is meant to form us into one body in a way that takes us beyond the differences and divisions of personality, ideology, theology, gender, ethnicity, history, social status, pre-occupation, privatized agenda, and jealousy. Often times it alone has the power to do this. Why? Why does the Eucharist have such unique power?
The Eucharist creates community in a way that cannot be explained in terms of normal group-process. Only the language of ritual sheds any light here. What happens at the Eucharist cannot be extrapolated and explained in terms of simple psychological dynamics. It transcends the purely psychological, as does all powerful ritual process. How? An analogy might be helpful in trying to understand this:
I entered the Oblate seminary in my late teens as part of a group of nearly fifty young men (with an average age of under twenty-five). We were housed in one small, over-crowded building which also served us for classrooms, library, cafeteria, and recreation. I lived in that situation, a potential psychological hot-bed, for six years and, overall, it was a wonderful experience. Despite our differences in background and personality and our youthful immaturities, we basically got on quite well with each other. Very few left the seminary, in those years, over relational difficulties with other seminarians.
However, one of the linchpins within our daily program was something we called “Oraison”. It worked this way: For half an hour each morning and for another half-hour each night, we would sit together, all of us, in complete silence in the chapel. No words were exchanged among us and nothing was expected of anyone except his silent presence. Looking back now, I see that this particular practice of sitting together in silence, in prayer, for an hour each day, did more to bring us together and keep us together than did all the community-building exercises we did at other times. It created a ritual container that held us together in a way that no purely psychological or emotional container ever can. What we had each day was akin to a “Quaker silence”; we sat together, before God, and asked God to give us something that we could not give to ourselves, namely, community beyond our differences. We asked God to make a single word out of the different letters of our lives.
And it wasn’t anything romantic, you can be sure of that! We sat in a chapel, which itself was no aesthetic prize, as a group of immature, young men, and we fought sleep, boredom, our hormones, tiredness, low-sugar, irritation with each other, full moons, growling stomachs, homesickness, emotional obsessions, scars from our sporting events, and jealousies. This wasn’t the holy family, not by a long shot. But it worked – marvellously so. God gave us, daily, something we couldn’t give to ourselves, a common heart and common spirit. So too, in Eucharist.
Recently I saw a satirical version of Leonardo de Vinci’s famous Last Supper. Mostly it looked like the original, except, in this updated version, one of the disciples is making a phone call on a mobile phone, just as Jesus is lifting the bread and wine to God for consecration. Not far off the mark at all!
One of our deepest, congenital longings is for community. But we come together, seeking each other, carrying huge differences: our wounds, our separate histories, our preoccupations, our sexual and emotional obsessions, our jealousies, our boredom, and (far too often) our cellular telephones. Such is our alphabet. On our own we cannot form ourselves into a single prayer or into a single heart. Only God can make those words. God does this for us in the Eucharist.