The tiny bread, the tiny cup

I might have mentioned, I suppose, in the previous post on Take This Bread, that Sara Miles sees communion as a sacrament, while we Anabaptists see it as an ordinance, a memorial with a strong emphasis on the horizontal relationship implied in community. Either way, all’s well and good, I think;  strange how these differences were, at one time in history, so very important, even enough to provoke martyrdom, but seem unimportant now (while we argue about other things).

Which reminds me of a moment in This Hidden Thing. I do hope it won’t seem too indulgent of me to offer one small glimpse…. In this scene the protagonist Maria is elderly (this is decades back) and not so well any more and she’s leaning against her uncle Peter’s “old, spongy sofa,” waiting for him to make coffee, and since she’s brought him some homemade bread, she’s thinking about that, and it’s reminded her of communion they had on Sunday, the “tiny square of bread, the tiny cup” and “the humility that filled the sanctuary, everyone quietly accepting their share…”

The portions were entirely too small for the spiritual hunger and thirst of her old age, she sometimes thought, tastes so brief they were scarcely comprehended, but once inside her mouth they seemed to swell in their indefinable way; then they were enough. Once she’d thought, well, no wonder, it was his body and blood after all. She’d pushed the heretical notion away, remembering that for Mennonites there was nothing literal in those words; symbols didn’t abandon their ordinary substance on account of a presiding minister’s words; that was one of the things the Reformation squabbled over, wasn’t it, and weren’t the Catholics damned, to a soul?

“Well,” she thinks immediately, “I don’t know.”

Maria loved the convenience of “I don’t know,” the prerogative the church had given women: silence, no theological finesse or bold statements required. It made them lazy perhaps, but maybe not. She, at least, felt she could rest in the truth and squalor she’d cobbled together from what she’d heard and read and imagined. She could always say, as Mary must have, sitting at Jesus’ feet, I don’t know, my Lord, what do you mean?….

…But here it was again. Pasty bread: flesh. The onslaught of juice in her mouth: a taste of blood. Hadn’t he said, Eat me, drink me?…. [S]he liked the subversion of believing it, exactly that way….

I’m resonating with Maria here, letting the bread be what it is, whether sacrament or memorial…. (And if it seems odd that I’d resonate with a character I’ve created, instead of the other way around, maybe I’ll have to weigh in on that relationship some time. In another post!)

Take This Bread

A memoir that begins with walking into a church at age 46, eating a piece of bread and sipping some wine, and then becomes – because that moment “changed everything” – the story of a San Francisco food pantry doesn’t really sound all that compelling, does it? It didn’t to me, at least, but the book was recommended, so I bought it, and read it. And lo and behold, Take This Bread by Sara Miles (Ballantine 2007) turned out to be very compelling indeed.

Miles had led, to that point of the first swallow, “a thoroughly secular life,” raised, in fact, in an environment quite hostile to the church. But there was something about those pieces of bread, about “eating Jesus,” that brought her to faith and kept her there. And once she was at the table, she had to follow its implications.

All that grounded me were those pieces of bread….It was the materiality of Christianity that fascinated me, the compelling story of incarnation in the grungiest details, the promise that words and flesh were deeply, deeply connected.

Take this Bread has a fresh, honest, contemporary feel to it akin to the work of Anne Lamott (whose praise graces its cover) and Lit author Mary Karr. Sara Miles insists on talking about and acting as if Jesus matters, startling those who prefer a more sophisticated version of faith. But she doesn’t play it fundamentalist or pious either. She’s a lesbian and makes no apology for that, or for her relentless quest to feed the hungry, whoever they may be; her church, St. Gregory’s, believed “in the absolute religious value of welcoming people who didn’t belong” and Miles will take this seriously, as she will the Gospels.

Inevitably, of course, there’s conflict over the untidiness and impositions a food pantry in a church will create, but Miles persists: with the congregation, and with the pantry. She realizes, “I was not going to get to have dinner, eternally, with people just like me.” She also knows that “[w]hen you let the wrong people in, the promise of change could finally come true.”

I recommend Take this Bread for its narrative, and for its challenging and nourishing ideas. (Miles has a second book out, Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead, which made the list of annual recommends from Christian Century.) And here, for a parting taste, is the prayer she wrote for the food pantry, which would make a good table grace for any of us:

O God of abundance, you feed us every day. Rise in us now, make us into your bread, that we may share your gifts with a hungry world, and join in love with all people, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.