This is significant because circumstances required that I leave my former church, something I’ll write about down the road. At about that time I felt led to start studying the Eucharist, which is the Catholic word for communion, or the Lord’s supper. “Eucharist” actually means thanksgiving, and it comes from a Greek word. I have been attending Mass on Sundays because of a deep spiritual need to participate in the Eucharist. I find it very moving. Because I’ve been confirmed in the Catholic Church I can receive communion even after four decades of absence.
I also began reading Thomas Merton’s The Living Bread. For those of you not familiar with him, Merton will probably be remembered as the greatest monk of the last century, if “greatest” is something that can be said of a monk. Merton lived at the Abbey of Gethsemane, which is a mere 90 minutes from Bowling Green. He died from an accidental electrocution in 1968 while in Thailand at an ecumenical conference on monasticism.
Merton examines John 6, and focuses on Christ’s statements that He is the “bread of life,” and “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” As Merton points out, these are deeply mystical words, and are to be taken literally.
What Merton means is that the elements of the Eucharist are “soul food.” Communion actually nourishes the soul, and is an integral part of the care of our souls. One thing I discovered while a member of a Protestant church is that communion is done rarely, if at all, and is more of a ceremony than anything else. Many Protestant churches have communion once a quarter.
In seminary I was taught that communion was a sacrament, but little else was mentioned about it. Many Protestants believe that communion is an ordinance, or a remembrance per 1 Corinthians 11:23; however, little attention is paid to John 6. Communion isn’t seen as soul food, and is viewed as a sacrament in name only. (BTW, the Greek word for sacrament is the same word “mystery” comes from.)
Interestingly, Protestant orthodoxy on communion is not too terribly different from Catholicism. Here’s what John Calvin had to say about the Lord’s Supper:
The sum is, that the flesh and blood of Christ feed our souls just as bread and wine maintain and support our corporeal life. For there would be no aptitude in the sign, did not our souls find their nourishment in Christ. This could not be, did not Christ truly form one with us, and refresh us by the eating of his flesh, and the drinking of his blood.
That’s big stuff, and along the same lines of what Merton had to say. Martin Luther believed in what he called the consubstantiation of communion, meaning that Christ is present in the elements. The Catholic Church differs a bit on this, maintaining that the elements are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ during the Mass, and that we ingest them.
All of this thinking is close enough in my mind that quibbling over the differences produces much heat and little light. What we should be paying attention to is the agreement among great theologians that communion is soul food.
I find myself fascinated by communion. It is something deeply mysterious, yet vital, just like our souls. If our souls form an integral part of our being, then we should pay as much if not more attention to them than the specials at the local restaurant. Christ says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” There is no better way to nourish the spirit than through communion; that is, a direct union with God by receiving His body and blood so that we mutually abide in and with Him, and He in us. Unfortunately, the deep significance of communion is as little mentioned as the soul.
I have my own “routine” for participating in the Eucharist. Typically, I read and meditate on John 6 during worship, and then read 1 Co 11:28–29: “Examine yoursel[f], and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” That is a serious commandment. In the Greek, the word “examine” is in the imperative, meaning it is not optional. It is required. Paul states that people in the church at Corinth are sick, weak, and dying because they are not undertaking the required examination beforehand. Receiving communion involves preparation of the soul and mind; the body and blood of Christ should be welcomed with as much purity of being as possible.
I also like to say a part of Psalm 51 to myself: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” This helps me focus on my suitability for communion.
I’m the first to acknowledge that all of this sounds foreign to many Christians in a scientific and secularized world. The soul and communion are invisible and mysterious. Some of this seems like mumbo-jumbo, or something for mystics locked away in remote areas. But that isn’t so, and is an easy way of avoiding the challenge of an intimate knowledge of the depths of our souls. We cannot know ourselves unless we know our souls.
I am reminded of one of my favorite quotations in the Bible: “what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18) Caring for what we take into eternity with us is caring for the unseen inside us. We must feed our souls just as we feed our bodies.