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Staring at Bread: Making communion a spiritual practice


Annually, for several years, I visited the monastery of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, a beautiful compound north of downtown Tucson. I was amazed at the physical, mental, and spiritual liveliness of these mostly older women, and the level of their engagement with the world despite their mostly cloistered way of life. Their central spiritual practice is to stare at the closed doors of a small box containing the wafer of the Eucharist. An unusual job, is it not, to perpetually adore a piece of bread?  I joined them for their vesper service, which begins and ends with this practice. We stared at the tabernacle, a box containing the wafer at the far end of their big, ornate chapel. I contemplated the box itself, the idea of adoring the wafer, the wafer itself, and the mysterious idea of the Christ, and all of us and everything else – at one with that wafer.  I kept my gaze fixed on it. When vespers was over, I released that focused attention and noticed its “echo.”  Focusing attention, and then releasing it, made me suddenly more awake to everything and everybody in the chapel.

A young Muslim woman student at the University of Southern California once told me that the reason she fasts at Ramadan is to manifest an essential human quality. Human beings, she said, are the only creatures that are able to restrain themselves from doing what they want to do. When animals are hungry, they find something to eat and eat it. When they are thirsty, they find something to drink and they drink it. Humans are humans because they can get hungry and thirsty but, if they choose, restrain themselves from eating or drinking. This capacity for deferral of immediate gratification in many other areas of life is what makes civilization possible. Fasting at Ramadan was a “via negativa” – a way of negation – to develop her ability to restrain herself from harmful impulses.

It seems to me that the nuns practicing perpetual adoration of the blessed sacrament are savoring their hunger for the wafer in the box on the altar.  They are delaying gratification, and paradoxically experiencing gratification in the process.  They are becoming more fully human through this practice.

I offer it to you now as the focus for your contemplation.   Take a cracker or a piece of bread, and set it in front of you so you can gaze at it.

Let us begin with words of institution – ones I wrote myself recently, as the pandemic started and “social distancing” became necessary:

“This is my body…”
This is the body of Christ.
This body knows what it is like to long for a hug, but not be able to get one when it needs it the most. 
This body knows how to feel a hug through a window or a screen.
This body knows what it is like to be afraid.
This body knows what it is like to be loved out of its fear.
This body knows what it is like to be hungry, but not able to go to the store to get food.
This body knows the sadness of having enough food but feeling the hunger of others.
This body feels helpless in the face of injustice.
This body is energized for activism to change the unjust structures of society.
This body knows what it is like to lose its job when it needs it the most.
This body knows what it is like to work in a hospital without enough protection.
This body knows what it is like to be alone in a hospital bed, unable to have visitors.
This body knows the joy of getting a phone call from – anybody.
This body knows what it is like to wake up in the middle of the night, worrying.
This body knows what it is like to fall back asleep and dream sweetly, oblivious to the cares of the world.
This body knows life in all its sorrow and pleasure, fulness and emptiness, eagerness and trepidation.
This is your body.
The body of Christ.

Now, take the bread and raise it before you:

This is the body of Christ.
Take, and eat…

And close your eyes, and attend to the experience of consuming the bread – its taste, texture, the way it changes as you chew and swallow it.  The early 16th century Spanish Franciscan lay brother and medical doctor, Bernardino de Laredo, wrote an elaborate treatise about the way God manifests in the inner workings of the human body.  He was fascinated with what we might call “spiritual metabolism”:  how the bread and wine of the sacrament turned into the blood of the believer receiving it.  Laredo taught that self-knowledge begins with understanding how God dwells and works within and through the organs and processes of one’s body. Physiology was Laredo’s interpretive key to a mystical theology of the incarnation or physical presence of God in the Christ. By knowing one’s own body in contemplation, one could directly experience this incarnation, and through it know God.

“As this piece [of bread] was scattered over the hills and then was brought together and made one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom.”  This passage from the Didache, a very early Christian liturgical document, expresses one of the many meanings latent in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

For “high church” or liturgical Christians, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus in the mass. For “low church” Protestant Christians, the meal is symbolic. The breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine express the breaking open and pouring out of the love that is God, through the Christ who dwells in each of us. For all Christians, the ritual is a moment of deep bonding and sharing with the other members of the church community.

So much of the time, we eat and drink mindlessly: we don’t pay that much attention to how it tastes or feels. We don’t spend much time savoring it, focusing our attention on the food itself, rather than on conversation or on other things that are on our minds. The communion ritual offers a chance to mindfully eat and drink. It is “soul food” and it is “slow food.”

As you eat the sacramental bread, imagine the fields of wheat. Imagine the rows of vines. And meditate for a moment on the labor of the people who worked to make grain into bread, grapes into wine.  Imagine the millions of human beings who have taken the bread and wine with attention and intention over the past 2,000 years of Christianity. Imagine that vast community of faith being culminated in this very moment. Imagine that you have eaten bread and drunk wine not just for yourself, but for all of those who have gone before, and for all who will come after you…..


Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: Musings

Follow on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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