Lectio Divina – Eat My Flesh
As a sophomore in college, a Catholic priest named Fr. Leo A. Murray SJ took me to a Jesuit retreat center in Wernersville, PA. Having been there once before as a high school Junior I found it to be a quiet, contemplative place. Staying there with Fr. Murray that second time felt special. Our discussions were psychologically deep and intellectually interesting. He had been my teacher for a class in World Religions during my senior year at Loyola Blakefield in Towson, MD. Fr. Murray had been the Headmaster of the school.
Fr. Murray earned his master’s in theology and his doctorate in French Film. During his doctoral work, he had been to England and France and became friends of film writers and directors. Fr. Murray was a close collaborator with Fred Zinnemann (A Man For All Seasons), Francoise Truffaut (Jules & Jim, Wild Child, Day for Night), and other French movie artists. Through his own lens, he saw things in movies than I missed. His keen insights always caught me by surprise.
We had gone to see the opening night for the Baltimore viewing of the film The Gospel According to Matthew, and Fr. Murray describe his delight at the camera angle used by the Italian director, Pier Paolo Pasolini. “Did you notice how he approached the opening scene with Joseph? You can just feel the turmoil the groom is in: Should he divorce Mary quietly and disappear? Should he go ahead and marry her? The circular motion of the camera was the perfect way to show that Joseph was tied up in knots.” I had to admit that I would never have thought that, nor gained that insight without his sensibilities.
Just before the Wernersville retreat, I had completed a hectic semester at Yale. In the fall I had switched my major from Biology (Pre-Med) to Psychology, but the academic pace did not slow down. Auditing an extra English class on Faulkner, completing some Biology labs, I was exhausted. I also had self-inflicted stress on my course load by maintaining too many extra-curriculars: two Varsity NCAA Division I sports teams, and an a’cappella singing group. The catch was that I had just torn ligaments in my knee in a wrestling tournament and was recuperating at home for a few weeks. My parents wanted to see me, having not been home for Thanksgiving (wrestling in New Haven), and I was about to head out on a Tour with my singing group, the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus, affectionately known as the S.O.B.’s. Prior to this bacchanalia-like trip I had written to Fr. Murray, who suggested a retreat, while I was in Maryland. A retreat? He must be kidding me, right? He wasn’t. I did not realize at the time how much I needed one.
Earlier that year I had renewed my membership in the Yale Law School Film Society, which was open to all students. As a freshman I realized that the students at Yale were quick-witted and intimidating. As an example, I found myself laughing at jokes told in the film society movies about a half second AFTER the rest of the audience. Not that there is any tragedy in that revelation, but the students were so “wicked smart,” I was not sure how to keep up with their mental speed.
We had just finished a strange season of late night movies in a series known as “Things Go Bump in the Night.” Not particularly fond of scary slasher thrillers, I reluctantly decided to go along for the ride. One of the films that year was the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the movie, a leather-masked character had killed a man (with a chain saw, of course), sliced up his body, made sausage out of his limbs and cooked him. At the climactic dining room table scene the guests were shown eating the stew which contained the man who had been killed. The people at the dinner table were to be the next victims in the thriller. I thought the whole thing was pretty disgusting.
Fr. Murray asked me that Saturday afternoon: “So what films have you seen lately?” Ironically explaining to him my horror and disgust with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, we were walking along the edge of the Wernersville graveyard. I explained the dinner scene in all of its gory details. The director had manipulated the audience during a scene for his own sick sense of humor. When the audience finally realized what the guests were eating, they all cheered. I had not been one of the first to pick up the joke, and I felt pretty distressed.
Rhetorically I asked Fr. Murray, “Can you imagine eating someone’s flesh?” In typical Socratic method – Jesuit style, he replied by asking me a question: “What do you feel when you eat the Eucharist?” After a few sentences of sputtering how that was not the same thing and how different it all was, I stopped my tracks and thought. His was a simple and straight forward enough question. I went to Catholic mass regularly, and I had always taken communion, since I had received the Sacrament. What was I saying? What were my beliefs about “the HOST?” Is the priest trans-substantiating the bread into the Body of Christ? Or is the Eucharist merely a ritual with a symbolic nod to the Divine? Am I really eating the flesh and drinking the blood of my Redeemer? It was time to think about what I was doing in church. Is the Eucharist as graphic as Fr. Murray had put the questions? I had some work to do. And this time is was not about the speed of getting it, but the depth. Fr. Murray was asking me to “go deep,” and there was no football in his hands.
In my religious formation the process was in baby steps. A cradle Catholic, I was baptized shortly after birth, dutifully attended Catholic schools and went through the sacraments. There had been no major epiphanies, no swooning salvation; only small, incremental movements toward belief. But what did I believe? There were great periods of meditation, for sure. I could always delay my verbal commitments by admitting not knowing. The phrase ‘the great unknowable’ comes to mind.
It was always easier to say what I thought about something, than what I felt. Feelings were far trickier than thoughts. I was a pure novice when it came to my heart of hearts. Yes, I had mouthed the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed for the better part of two decades. And yes, I had been a choir boy and altar boy much of my childhood. We were taught Latin and I found it helpful in my vocabulary tests and French. But I never had the zeal of a Born Again Christian. I was being confronted about my beliefs by one of the priests who taught me religion! What should I say? What should I think? What do I feel? What should I believe? Not fully answering Fr. Murray’s simple question that weekend, I pondered it for many years after that retreat in Wernersville. In some ways I have been wandering at the edge of that grave yard ever since.
My approach to the question of “what am I eating” in the Eucharist was typical social science: I had to do research. I read sections of the Gospels and Epistles on the topic and the writings of the theologians. I read what the Pope was saying on the matter and talked about it with my Mom and Dad and brothers. I made it very complicated and complex. I wrote and thought, and prayed and stewed (no pun intended), but could not come to a conclusion. It defied logic. The question demanded that I take a huge “and then a Miracle happens” leap of faith. In the end, though, it was up to me! It did not help that I was a wrestler, because I would sweat over this one in my dreams, like Jacob wrestling with the angel.
In high school one particular mass was celebrated in the field house gym. Since this was the ’60’s and the cool band, Hoi Polloi, was rocking it pretty good, it seemed right that the Jesuits were pushing the traditions to the forward edge. Instead of cardboard-tasting wafers of bread, they had substituted freshly baked loaves of bread. Apparently, the priests had asked the order of nuns, who lived a few properties away, to bake them some bread. The Jesuits, however, did not tell the nuns what the bread was for. When the bread was consecrated, we all marveled at the raising of the full loaves, which seemed very much in keeping with the Last Supper. However, when the bread was broken to be passed among the congregants, we noticed that it was raisin bread with a distinct hint of cinnamon. The Jesuits proceeded with Communion and the rest of the mass as if nothing had happened, but I knew they were sweating under those vestments. Was it really Christ’s body in the raisin bread we were eating? At the time I had my doubts.
Yale was surprisingly rich with many people of faith. I do not recall the “cold chill of truth” about any miracles, but I will admit that getting admitted to Yale in the first place, with all of those brainiacs, was pretty miraculous. I did, however, meet a lot of what I will call “holy people.” The most profound person was Fr. Henri Nouwen, the famous Dutch theologian and writer. He delivered the Battell Lectures to the students and faculty, while studying at the Yale Divinity School. Interestingly, Fr. Leo Murray had been at Yale at the same time, and he introduced me to his house mate, Henri. Once my ears broke through the thick accent, I was pulled into his orbit of human kindnesses. It is amazing to be in the presence of a saint, and to know it instantly.
Henri was a Dominican priest of great renown at the time. He was on a brief sabbatical at Yale and offered three lectures. The talks were entitled “Three Meditations on Living a Christian Life,” and they were later complied into the book called. “Out of Solitude.” One of the quotations from that lecture series was the following: “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” I had a lot of friends in New Haven, but Henri Nouwen’s lectures made me feel more lonely than I had imagined. Did I have the sort of friends who touched me in the ways that he had described? No, not really. Alone with my own solitude was terrifying.
My family was not caught up in praying to saints much, except St. Anthony, who helped us find lost things. But my mother’s father, Henry C. Evans, (I am his namesake) was man of great faith and a convert to Catholicism. To the envy of his “Army friends,” Henry Evans served in both WWI and WWII. When he was in Europe, he met some holy people, who became part of his conversion experience. Teresa Newmann was a famous German Stigmatic, or recipient of the Stigmata of Christ. Teresa was an ordinary farm girl, who had some awe inspiring impact on many people who came into contact with her. She was a modern day mystic. When Henry Evans met Teresa, he knew she was a holy person, whose experiences were divine. He smelled the distinct scent of roses, when he was near Teresa. Not knowing much about stigmatics, they were people of great faith, who were given the wounds of Christ as a symbol to others of the divinity of Christ and His presence in our world. The men and women who suffered these wounds were a living reminder that those who have not seen and yet still believe are truly blessed.
As a stalwart member of the St. Thomas More Catholic Church on Park Street at Yale, I befriended the Pastor, Fr. Dick Russell, and his assistant, Fr. Peter Fagen. There was a house directly next to the Church, called The White House, which housed some brave undergraduates. I was making plans to move into the White House during my Junior year, but it burned down, in a tremendous fire, before I had the chance. No one died in the fire, but the material losses were large for the renters. Several of them whom I knew as men of faith, were shattered by the experience and they drifted away from the Catholic community. I was a bit shaken, but not so much as to do any particular soul searching. Striking was the fact that the residents of the More House were some of the fastest minds and funniest men on campus. When they drifted away from the community, it occurred to me that it doesn’t matter what you know in life. What matters is who you are. And who you are depends more on what you feel than what you think. Thoughts about the men from the White House have come and gone over the years and they, too, are a source of emotional interest. I wanted them to be my “friends” in the way that Henri Nouwen described, but it was not to be.
Over the years I have seen and heard things that seem impossible, because in human terms they are. But when the reference is switched to God, anything is possible. My experiences of singing have made me acutely aware of being an instrument, rather than a pure source of song. My experiences as an athlete, whether I have run the Boston Marathon or coached a championship wrestler, have made me keenly aware of God working through us, rather than being the source of the energy. Just look at St. Francis, another great stigmatic, whose prayer says it so well:
- Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
- Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
- Where there is injury, pardon;
- Where there is doubt, faith;
- Where there is despair, hope;
- Where there is darkness, light;
- Where there is sadness, joy.
- O Divine Master,
- grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
- to be understood, as to understand;
- to be loved, as to love.
- For it is in giving that we receive.
- It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
- and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
With the emphasis on the visual aspects the Eucharist at mass, I see bread and wine. With the emphasis on what can God do, I see body and blood. I may not have it correctly in the Catholic sense, but I feel that when the point of reference changes from me to the Divine, the altered order feels right. The important character in the sacrament is Jesus; it is neither me nor the priest. My heart, and the hearts of those around me, can be changed by what He did for us. And over time I hope and pray to be worthy of His sacrifice. We no longer have to provide burnt offerings or slaughtered animals to the altar. Christ took care of that demand by hanging on the Cross and dying for us. He made the ultimate sacrifice so that the rest of us do not have to.
What a freeing act of love that is!
Christ on the Cross by Rembrandt
I never went to see another slasher movie, yet the impact of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre has stayed with me far longer than one would imagine. God works in mysterious ways. He may be working on me though Things That Go Bump in the Night!
NIV John 6:43-58
43 “Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. 44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’[d] Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
52 Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
53 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”