At 5:15pm one of my friends picked me up from work. And we drove to a friend’s house.
And we had a feast.
It was a feast in commemoration of St. Francis. There were seven courses, all traditional Italian meals.
First, the appetizer: assorted olives, giardiniera, herbed ricotta bruchetta, and parmesan crisps. Served with campari and soda.
Then, the antipasto: slices of fresh mozzarella and tomatoes (delicious), layered with prosciutto, capocollo, and soppressata, ornamented with basil chiffonade latticed with basalmic glaze on sesame-semolina loaf. The contrast of salt and sweet, soft and crunchy, all in a single bite, was delectable.
Next course was a bowl of white and sweet potatoes, along with spinach gnocchi, steeped in marsala alfredo accented with salty pancetta and peas.
Thrillingly, the main course was… well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.
What that is, is a flank steak rolled with salami, ham, provolone and parmesan cheese, fresh herbs, hard-boiled egg, golden raisins and pine nuts simmered in a tomato-garlic ragu… served atop creamy asiago-romano polenta and sautéed wild mushrooms with garlic.
For dessert we had assorted cheeses, figs, grapes, and a lemon-basil ice cream and ricotta-honey gelati nestled with a Florentine lace cookie (I confess to not being able to finish the whole cookie) and a scattering of fresh blueberries.
The music spanned the whole scope of Italian musical history, from Gregorian chant through the Renaissance polyphony of Palestrina, down to Puccini and Vivaldi and Frank Sinatra.
It was a sacramental occasion: a night of art, good food, and laughter, enjoying and being nourished by the best life has to offer.
A small taste of heaven.
So perhaps it was fitting that before we began the meal, we took the Blessed Sacrament.
* * *
In his book Letters to a Young Catholic, one of the books that brought me out of a fundamentalist cult, George Weigel explains the meaning of the sacraments:
“We’ve spoken before about the core Catholic conviction that STUFF counts. Even in his pre-Catholic years, G. K. Chesterton was an ardent defender of the sacramental imagination—the core Catholic conviction that God saves and sanctifies the world through the materials of the world.
“The world was sacramentally configured by God in the beginning (Genesis 1:1) – and still is today (c. f. everything around you). What we experience here in what skeptics call ‘the real world’ is a window into the REALLY real world that makes this world possible, the world of transcendent Truth and Love.
“The ordinary stuff of the world is the material God uses to bring us into communion with the truly extraordinary—with God himself.”
God reveals his beauty in ordinary things.
And yet for a young man living in spiritual oppression, what a radical idea.
Growing up I had a fascination with beauty. With creation. With things.
But with a few exceptions, I couldn’t find affirmation of the goodness of that beauty in the approved venues.
I had to wander outside the safety of mainstream Evangelicalism in order to find poets and artists and writers who celebrated the goodness of God in the beauty of this world. Henry David Thoreau, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton… Anglicans, Catholics, and mystics.
For them, God wasn’t imprisoned in the Bible. He was everywhere.
In the honking of geese,
the rustling of trees,
the faces of men and women beautiful and ugly,
the staggering wildness of steep cliffs,
a generous and well-prepared meal,
a novel by Dostoevsky,
the warmth of a huge blanket on a cool day,
moonlight spilling over mountains,
the offer of forgiveness to one who needs it,
the quiet beauty of reconciliation between friends long estranged,
in all these things we catch just a small reflection of the God who made all things.
* * *
And yet I don’t think the Christian faith could sustain this kind of understanding, or keep it within its proper boundaries, without the sacraments. Especially the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist.
For the last six months I’ve been going to a church that serves traditional communion. It’s the most extraordinary thing. In every other church I’ve been to, the wafer is a tiny piece of bread and the wine a tiny cup of grape juice, solitary and isolated, hastily gulped and thrown away like so much refuse.
But in these churches, be they Anglican or Catholic or whatever, communion is different. You all go up and stand in a line together. And you drink from the same cup, from a grail held by the priest or a deacon. And it’s so communal, so material, so…
And it makes me think that what they say must be true, that Jesus is really in this. In this sacrament. The bread and wine.
And I keep thinking about something that C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams said about fundamentalist Islam that applies equally well to fundamentalist Christianity. How it fears mystery, fears the material world. And how, for that reason, it shuns the glowing materialism of the Grail.
But I know that those moments when I drink from the Chalice are some of the happiest of my whole week.
Tonight I was reading a post by a woman who’s mystified by her own experience of the Eucharist. She didn’t go into it expecting much. She doesn’t know how to account for it.
All she can say is, she finds herself being changed by it.
“Somewhere in the past year or so, I’ve started to notice a growing feeling of slowly being filled or nourished. It’s a very subtle feeling but no longer deniable.”
I know what she means. I can feel it, too.
Christians who are Gnostics without knowing it, as I was, think the way to spiritual growth is to do a lot of reading. And that’s important. Informative reading nourishes our minds; imaginative reading nourishes our hearts.
But communion, the sacraments, nourish the whole person.
And I can’t explain how, but I know that since I began drinking from the Grail on a near-weekly basis, since I began meditating on it, I can feel myself being changed.
I don’t know that I’m a better person, necessarily. But I’m not as flimsy. Something is being strengthened on the inside of me. I feel more solid, somehow. Earthier.
It’s a slow work. But that’s how the kingdom of heaven advances.
Seeds being sown, crops growing. Bread rising. Shepherds finding sheep. Sons coming home.
The beauty of God reflected in the stuff of earth.