Unlike many books, I found myself taking copious notes on this one. Often my notes are points of interest, inspirational quotes, witticisms and the like. So they are rather limited.
Not so with The Sacred Meal, by Nora Gallagher. I have 7 pages (most front and back) of notes, and that was cutting quotes down to the minimum so that I could go back. My review will be coming soon, but these notes should serve to address concerns more specifically than can be done in a review.
p. xix – At the heart of any religion worth its salt, I think, is what a friend calls “redemptive wrestling”. Faith is all about struggle. It’s about getting to what is really real in a world that does not always welcome reality. This begins a long chain of “any religion”, inter-faith discussion that has little place when discussing communion. I would agree that there is an element of wrestling to faith. I don’t know that I’d equate it with faith, though. A pleasant and comforting thought for those who do struggle, I suppose, though what this redemption is is never clarified. Her whole argument seems to be that spiritual “practices” are this “wrestling”, though it is muddled.
p. xx – You will find in these pages a way to approach communion by a threefold path: waiting, receiving, and afterward. A (mercifully) brief history of Communion, and various Christian perspectives on it. Mostly you will find my story… My initial reaction was a sigh of regret. A good historical perspective and treatment of communion was what I was hoping for in a book entitled The Sacred Meal, and in a series called “Ancient Practices”. I will leave the notes on the other chapters to clarify my thoughts on whether she accomplished “history” or “Christian perspectives”.
Chapter 1 – Scotch Tape and Bailing Wire
Chapter 1 is largely an illustration from her own life. It is emotive, and occurred near the context of communion but was not about communion. Other than a possible epiphany of meaning, there is no context provided for shared pain leading to awareness of community. In the end, the illustration fell flat and powerless.
p. 7 Holy Communion was a web, a web of people being stitched together. And tomorrow, we would need to be stitched together again. By What? “The cup of salvation” is what precedes, following a reference to the “Blood of Christ”. However, her web does not engage this idea at all. Instead, this quote is followed by a lengthy passage about human frailty and how we all are part of each other as we enjoy the sacrament together. The reference to the cup of Christ is a passing thing, part of the narrative, and never engaged from a standpoint of its relationship to communion.
The whole idea that communion is “temporary stitching” is weak and powerless. Communion is a reminder of the permanence and power of what Jesus accomplished, and our shared relationship to that sacrifice; it is not a warm fuzzy about shared community and embracing each other’s pain.
Who can tell what the opening quote (from the book Chesapeake) was about. It was not related to the main point of the chapter; more like a mystical “here I go…” It has the feel of the mysterious with no lasting merit in reinforcing the text.
Chapter 2 – Communion is a Practice
p. 11 – It’s the same feeling I have when someone says about some small endangered animal…Without that animal, the natural world may start to unravel; without these monks, what we think of as the world of the spirit might begin to fray. She has frequent use of mystical overtones of “connectedness”, and the idea that we somehow are responsible for the existence of spiritual realities.
p. 12 – …He really cannot do it alone. Communion is not communion without two or three “gathered in my name” (Matthew 18:20). It does not rest on an individual. it is not a priest’s magic act. First bible verse used in her text is out of context, though it is to be agreed that it is not about the “priest” at all.
It is definitely true that communion is a communal activity, though.
p. 13-14 – Communion is all about the body. Every ancient practice is bodily, but this one is very, very much so. You have to move and open your mouth and hold out your hands. It is the one practice that is really ingesting spirit, eating what we call God but what may as well be called taking a bite out of infinity. Hmmm. No, communion is not “all about the body”. It is about Christ’s sacrifice and our common relationship to that sacrifice. She regularly uses this mystical language. If more subtle and less forced, it might be beautiful and enriching. Instead, it strikes one as a sickeningly sweet drink; for example, anti-freeze.
p. 14 – …Communion is one f the most mystifying and obscure aspects of Christianity… So far, her text has done nothing to address that, if one is even inclined to agree with her.
p. 15 – More than anything I want to introduce Communion to you as a practice. As something for you, devised cleverly by and for human beings, to help us get in touch with the holy. [bold mine] Say what? At the time I considered this just a passing statement. Further reading indicates it is not, but a consistent pattern of treating scripture as a misrepresentation of Christ’s teaching, deeply flawed and man-made. How in the world are men to devise cleverly something that gets in touch with the holy, something we know little about?
Throughout the chapter, she repeatedly sets up a false dichotomy between this practice and “personal” practices. Many of the mentioned practices – fasting, prayer, pilgrimage, etc. are also communal, not just personal.
p. 15 – Like these other spiritual practices, Communion has the same intention: to gradually move us out of one place and into another. The two sides are never identified. What we have here is a mystical/rhetorical flourish that has no body or support. Page 23 likely is meant to culminate this thought, identifying the target. But it is so distant and removed it fails to accomplish the purpose satisfactorily.
p. 16 – It’s complex, this business of living the right kind of life. The three Abrahamic faiths have been wrestling with how to do it for much longer than two thousand years, and the many faiths that preceded them struggled with it as well. By this point, there is a complete lack of focus. She keeps moving away from Communion to ethics and thought life; These are worthwhile topics, but misplaced. She then moves to shared faith language of Jews, Christians and Islam (and others) that puts every thought or belief about God on an equal footing. Or even makes Christian thought second-hand – unimportant – just the last in a long chain of human thought.
p. 17 – The stories Jesus tells were more often than not about people who broke the religious rules, not simply for the sake of breaking them, but for something bigger, more important, more life-giving. The notorious woman. The Samaritan woman whose daughter was possessed by demons. The woman caught in adultery. Tax collectors. Her list that follows her statement “The stories Jesus tells…” is not related to Jesus’ stories at all, but his interactions. She is conflating Jesus stories and the narrative itself to give authority to her own thoughts.
p. 18-19 – She is speaking about corruption, power, outsiders… where is all this headed?
p. 20 – Jesus’ parables are clear as water in regard to power: Don’t be absorbed in who is sitting at the head of the table. The last shall be first. The meek will inherit the earth. This is not given scripture reference, though it is indeed from Scripture. But the last particular use of scripture is not from the parables, as suggested. Nor are they about “power”, as if power was bad in and of itself. They are about pride and humility, spiritual vision of our own character and falseness.
p. 20 – But what I am coming to understand is that Jesus meant to say these things [parables and instructions about the humble and lowly] to himself, as much as to me. That’s sweet, an interesting and possibly heart-warming sentiment. “Jesus just like us.” But I’m not buying where she is going with it. Later she says similar things, almost making Christ out to have sinned. This has nothing to do with Communion, other than that all who come to Christ are part of the body and celebrate Communion as one, without regard for status or power.
p. 22 – Jesus did not suddenly make a choice between power and vulnerability. He put his foot on a path, and years later he looked back and saw where that path had led him. She states for fact what she has imagined, making Jesus out to be what she desires him to be. Scripture provides us with a Jesus who was following God’s voice, following a predetermined path that “inexorably” would lead to the cross. She presents him as a fumbling man, going with the flow and “doing his best”.
She claws at numerous examples from history of the low, meek or subjugated overcoming the honored and the powerful. And like our culture, which praises the Robin Hood mentality, she makes no distinction over whether law was broken to accomplish the ends desired. This is more about what our culture praises than about what God praises; and it still has little to do with Communion. Underpinning her logic early in the page is a mix up of the religious elite and the Roman establishment. She repeatedly makes this blind association, which is a mistake in light of Jesus’ message in scripture, which is rarely critical of Rome, of Rome’s authority or use of power. Indeed, Pilate would have freed Jesus, finding no cause to consider him a revolutionary, bent on bringing down Rome. His eventual judgment is made for fear of the religious leaders and what they might do. She wants to turn Communion into a polemic on wielding power and authority – something it is not.
p. 23-24 – She quotes Luke 22:19, then immediately contradicts it, though in roundabout fashion: Well of course we’re remembering Jesus, but that should not be all we’re doing. I don’t think Jesus was interested in everybody just remembering him. What’s the point of that? That puts Jesus in the category with the various celebrities who will do anything to get into the media…Instead, I think Jesus wanted his disciples and everyone who came after him to remember what they had together. What they made together. What it means to be together. How the things he wanted them to do could not be done alone. How the things he did could not be done without them. This is a devaluation of Jesus’ words, a twisting to where we focus on us, on what we are together. It sounds pretty and spiritual, but we only have this thing together because of the sacrifice of Christ and the continuing presence of his Spirit in those who follow him. We are not a web of a family, we are spokes attached to Christ, the common core, or like a body fitted and controlled by the Head. He certainly wanted communion to first of all be reminder of what he was about to suffer, then a call to follow him with the power his resurrection provides. But we can’t skip the sacrifice, the broken body and shed blood. They are the heart of Communion. What’s the point in that? To make us remember that this life is not about us, but about him.
p. 24 – Do this to remember how we healed the sick. do this to remember how we were a band of men and women who traveled together…Instead of thinking of that Communion as a ghoulish eating of human flesh, think of those who gather at Communion as the body of Jesus. We are the body given for each other. This is my body, he said. Look around you. [bold mine] These are the words, the thought bubble, that she puts on Jesus. I think she has skipped over the nature of Communion to make a point of her own, rather than letting Jesus speak. Communion is what it is – a communal event – because it points to the humanity, sacrifice and suffering of Christ – and what this has accomplished. It’s not about what the disciples accomplished with Jesus. That’s the wrong track. It ignores that Jesus took our sin on himself. He didn’t share it with his disciples, asking them to bear sin for the world. Jesus was often critical of his disciples unbelief and misguided passion. He wasn’t pointing out to them to act that way again, or even remember their failure. He was asking them to remember the sacrifice that would be his victory. We are the body given for each other. A nice sentiment, when placed after the context of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. Before that, it is a deceitful play on words.
p. 25 – A practice is designed to train the mind to think about something other than, in my case, real estate and haircuts, and to recover the thread, the meaning. If so, and I can agree, great – as long as we think and consider the right things. Gallagher fails to do so, in my opinion.
In the end, the title of Chapter 2 only meets the content of the chapter in the last paragraph. the rest is rambling that does not progress the topic of Communion.