Sacramental Connection with Everything?
Detached from the gathered life of the Church by limitations of my body and the layout of the local place of worship, I’m nevertheless happy, knowing that Word and Sacrament are celebrated in this suburban corner of the universe whether or not I’m physically involved. Spiritual detachment also seems to have a rightness in this twilight phase of life.
With time to spare, I’m moved to share a couple of earlier bits of my journey away from religiosity toward abandonment to the mystery of the all-inclusive Incarnation.
AUTUMN, 1951: A fifteen-year-old farm worker, I’m volunteered, along with a couple of old huntaways, to help with the Fall muster on a neighbouring high country station. Two o’clock breakfast, then slog on foot up in the moonlight with the mustering gang to reach starting positions by dawn. We’re to sweep the scattered sheep ahead of us across the mountain face. I, the greenhorn, am to take the top beat because all my dogs and I need do is keep in line and make a lot of noise. I arrive at my spur, sit puffing amid the snowgrass, look out upon the awakening of a wide, wide, wonderful world of mountains, farms, village, sparkling water, arching sky. I know that the creation is vast, a work in progress, indwelt by Holiness, earthed, natural not supernatural yet transcending all I’ve ever known. I know that all, even my ant-sized existence, is grace. Awe!
Next Sunday is Easter Day. I line up with my faithful Anglican family at the village church. I'm hoping that the liturgy (H.C. 1662) will somehow connect in my mind and heart with the “mountain-top” experience of being overwhelmed, caught up in, vibrant, all-inclusive holiness. It doesn’t. The ministry of word and sacrament is competently delivered by a good man. Perhaps I’m not tuned to the right frequency. Perhaps my hope is unreasonable. But my experience that day seems to be of just another nice service in a church that tidily keeps within its place, a place defined not so much by deep theology and searching spirituality as by many generations of comfortable culture. The emphasis seems to be on doctrines suggesting the supernatural, not much about the mysteries, the wonders, the beauty of the earthed, natural world of land (including the human presence) beyond the stained glass.
ROLL FORWARD A QUARTER-CENTURY: I’ve learned a bit by not only head-learning but also listening to the land in hands-on work, as a Department of Agriculture livestock instructor and an agricultural journalist – well, learned that there’s always infinitely more to learn, especially in the light of scripture and theology. I’m still seeking the sense of deep connection I sought as a fifteen-year old at Easter. I’m a guest for a while of the then West German Government, invited to indulge my quest for understanding how the stories of land-inclusive human community may play out. One happy evening is spent over a bottle of Moselle in the Presbytery in Flintsbach, a picturesque village in the Inn Valley, Upper Bavaria. The parish priest (let’s call him Fr Willem) speaks good English because he had spent the latter years of World War 2 in a British POW camp. Fr Willem tells of how he and parishioners revived the traditional procession on the feast of Corpus Christi. After morning Mass that day, the Thursday after Trinity, they paraded the Blessed Sacrament to every store and workshop, home, cowshed, garden in the district. “Just to Catholic folk?” I ask. “No,” replies the good Father, “Everyone, everywhere.” You’d be fully vested with the Sacrament held high in an ornate monstrance” I suppose. “Oh, no, nothing so high and mighty,” says Fr Willem. “Just day clothes, ciborium and lidded chalice. We had a bit of a yarn with everyone we met, chatted about what the deep reality represented by the Sacrament might mean in the down-to-earth contexts of these folks’ lives, answered questions, shared a few words of prayer, and the Sacrament itself where appropriate, and wandered on. It was great fun!”
This is where I’m tempted to toss out a lot of smart and patronising stuff from theological and liturgical tradition about what is really happening in Eucharistic worship. The fact is I have yet to find a neatly packaged answer to even the simple question I began struggling with in that mountain-top moment 66 years ago. When I turn to Jesus in contemplative prayer he’s inclined to laugh at me as he laughed with his mates as they struggled to get their heads around the feeding miracles; Do you not yet understand? (John 8.21) As with them, he leaves me to work things out without resort to cop-out dogma.
I guess I’ll still be asking questions as I drop off my twig. But one thing I know: that in which we take part in the Eucharist is earthed, invoking Jesus then and there, Jesus here and now, radiating light and renewed life everywhere and in all time. This infinite Christ is equally the intimate Jesus, the host who calls us as friends to share his costly love, share his vibrant life, be refuelled to spread the love 24/7.
Jesus in life, Jesus in death, is revealed as the most earthed person ever; bearer of the greatest love for all this world – a world ”filled with the grandeur of God” as Hopkins put it, a world in which one inhales both spirit and matter in every breath. I fear some of my cultural upbringing as a Christian and an observer of the life of land suggested that, depending on context, I could choose: spiritual or material, natural or supernatural, No so! All or nothing!
Yes, I've been overwhelmed by wonder during church worship as well as out in the loved world, usually when my soul is stilled and the liturgy not too busy. I wonder whether there should be more listening silence in many faith communities. In spite of the fact that I’m very serious indeed about the ministry of the Sacrament, I wonder whether an odd service of the Word should be inserted into the worship schedule of local churches where most people experience an unvaried diet of Eucharist. I wonder whether some of us are prey to a spirit of passive, individual consumerism, denying that the Offertory represents the entirety of God’s loved world beyond the stained glass. I wonder how to speak to the un-churchy majority of folk of the deeply, joyously disturbing reality of our faith without being greeted with rolling of eyes.
It’s not all about me. It’s not all about those of us who call ourselves Christian. As we offer bread to be broken, wine to be shared, ourselves soul and body, I imagine the Incarnate One offering back as sacrament the entire being of this little planet representing the vast universe in its beauty and its suffering, challenging us to live as grateful, healing celebrants where we are at every day.
Hymn words by Stephen Rose (published in the New Journeys Songbook, sung to the tune of “God whose almighty word”) help: Christ for the world we sing/all hopes to thee we bring/all pains and cares/…for thou art there!.../ visions to thee we bring: help us to dare:/ live in simplicity,/walking in charity,/caring alone for thee,/ for thou art there!