Finding God in the eucharist
As with the college experiences of many, my sophomore year was taken up with Western Civilization. For nine months I became deeply immersed in a class that met every weekday and covered one of the most appreciably vast combinations of subjects comprehensible to the mind of a young member of the academy. On my transcript the effort shows up as 12 credit hours (six of English, six of history), but the inner reality was one of complete investment in a project, and in fact of perhaps at least a few hundred hours spent in study, class, conversation and thought.I attended a Baptist university and remain a proud graduate to this day, owing much to this education, indeed this denomination, for my entire background as a minor. However, there was an unintended consequence of all my hours spent in Western Civ., which was that I emerged from the experience a ragged agnostic. This surely was not what the founders of my alma mater had desired, but it was the effect, and I was left to spend the summer before my junior year trying to sort things out in my heart.That summer I wrote for the local newspaper, making the whole area my beat. I kept busy – logging miles in a borrowed car, wearing down shoe leather, filling up notebooks, learning by making mistakes. But in any stolen moment of stillness, in the sticky heat of Oklahoma in July, my mind would reel back to the dialogues of the months prior, and I’d find myself chewing over passages from Flaubert or Eliot or Chaucer or Goethe. Down at the marrow of them all, there beat relentlessly the question of the existence of God – a question pulsating, finally, not in my heart, but rather in my throat.The summer ended having shed no light on the problem. Indeed the fall semester came and went, bringing with it no sense of resolve. The question remained the question.Then, in fairly rapid order, two things happened. The first was that I was fortunate enough to be married to the most sensible Midwestern girl you ever met. The second was that this sensible girl and I decided that we needed to look for God outside of what seemed conventional or ordinary to us. Out of a slight intuition, we elected to try the local Episcopal congregation first. And it was in this church that I met God for the third time in my life.I met a God who, it turned out, had been constantly calling out to me to come home during the whole brief span of my existence on earth. And I met that God – on that particular Sunday – not in the readings or the sermon or the prayers or the singing, but in the eucharist, or Holy Communion. The words of that communion were the pure poetry of prayer, a honeyed salve for the holes in my heart.As the priest took, blessed, broke, and gave the bread in memorial celebration of the actions of Christ at the Last Supper, the words said over that bread made utter sense to my poor soul.”Lord God of our Fathers; God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the priest prayed aloud. “Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”With one loud, clear voice, we all added, “Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the Bread.”And I tell you, it was so. Never before had I experienced such a direct answer to a prayer. God stooped and bent over my little soul, and I knew that everything was going to be OK.How this could be communicated in the space of a few moments and a round wafer of unleavened bread dipped in a bit of wine – even with all my study, I cannot form one helpful syllable. But I left that church comforted, renewed, challenged … and have done my best since to cast my lot with those proclaiming Jesus because of those moments of mystery and comfort.Years beyond that moment, I would find Thomas Merton whispering up to me from the page of his same experience, saying that looking at a broken host (the wafer, the symbolic body of Christ) lying on the plate at the altar, he became aware that “Christ develops your life into Himself like a photograph.””Then a continual Mass, a deep and urgent sense of identification with an act of incomprehensible scope and magnitude that somehow has its focus in the center of your own soul, pursues you wherever you go; and in all situations of your daily life, it makes upon you secret and insistent demands for agreement and consent.”In other words, this thing we call communion is greedy with your heart. It steals in upon you and occupies your attentions, yet it is not propaganda, but divine therapy. The same light by which “Christ develops your life into Himself” becomes, for others, the light of the world, the way by which others will see, when it is in turn radiated from your own life.We can only approximate the terms and effects of this mystery. One thing is surely certain, however – at least for me. The more I participate in Christ through the communion, the more sense it makes, the more I find I need it, and the more I want to share it.”Solace, strength, pardon, renewal.” Not bad for a Sunday morning – or, for that matter, a college kid with his heart in his throat looking for a little inspiration.The Rev. Torey Lightcap is priest-in-charge of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glenwood Springs (www.saint-barnabas.info). Torey and his wife have two children and live in New Castle.
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