Does the Eucharist have its own language, if so, how does that language shape our faith?
Eucharist as God’s Creative Language
St. John Henry Newman has never seemed that far away from me. Not only did I follow in his footsteps making the journey from Anglicanism into full communion of the Catholic Church, but as a student at Birmingham’s Maryvale Institute, I was afforded the opportunity to reside in Newman’s room. Along with fellow converts Newman made his home at Maryvale in 1846 and established the first oratory in England on this site after his ordination in Rome. His presence there remains tangible. One of the most challenging assignments I undertook as a graduate student at Maryvale was grappling with his An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (often shortened to Grammar of Assent), a writing project that took Newman twenty years to complete. As a largely philosophical treatise, Newman set out to demonstrate that scientific and logical standards for evidence to support Catholic belief are far too narrow for living faith in everyday life. He concluded that religious belief is an aspect in our life to be apprehended and is not necessarily meant to be understood in the same ways we can understand other things in the world. Newman consistently argued that the human mind finds certainty in matters of religious belief through multiple and varied strands of thought and evidence, unique to each person.
I have always been intrigued by Newman’s use of the word grammar in the title of his great work. Grammar is the system of a language. It says something about how communication is structured. As anybody who has learned a language other than their own comes to realize, mastering the grammar of a language brings clarity to what is being communicated. For some time, I have been pondering over a question which sounds at first hearing preposterous, but nonetheless reveals what we implicitly believe about the Eucharist: “What does our participation in, and our daily faith responses in light of the Eucharist, reveal about its grammar?” If the Eucharist has the capacity to speak profoundly to human life then it has a language, and perhaps even its own grammar to shape its message. Herbert McCabe’s exploration of the Eucharist as language inspired him to state, “The Eucharist is the creative language of God, his eternal Word made flesh. The aspirations are hope engendered by the resurrection, the opinions are the faith which is the word of God, and the friendship is the agape that God has given to us that we might share it with all humankind.”
Just as Newman envisaged the human mind grammatically working in a multiplicity of ways to bring a person to assent to religious beliefs, the grammar of the Eucharist shapes the way it communicates to faith and life circumstances, purpose and meaning, both to the assembled community and the individual. On a broader scale eucharistic language has something to say to societies. Writing of the necessity for catholicity to take sacramental imagination seriously as a way of perceiving and living in the world, Anthony Godzieba added that “…religion’s crucial role in contemporary society is to recognize and actively disclose the ‘otherness’ that is the sacred.” To disclose anything requires well-shaped and formed language — it is about revealing with clarity something that has remained hidden. Disclosing the sacred to societies that can find it increasingly difficult to recognize and affords the Eucharist a distinctive value and voice. The Eucharist can speak to every facet of life precisely because it nourishes everything that is life. How the language of Eucharist speaks its message in such diverse, yet recognizable ways can bring us to a discovery of its grammar.
Active Voice for Mastering Faith’s Activities
I remember Mrs. Somerfield with mixed emotions. As one of my first school teachers, her patient endurance with my lack of confidence in writing also meant that she sat with me during morning recess as my classmates played outside in the courtyard. It took me some time to get my head around the idea that every sentence needs a verb and where to place them. Her perseverance revealed that a child’s preoccupation with words helps prepare for a lifetime of activity — a gathered life animated by living verbs. R. Buckminster Fuller was an American systems theorist and architect. His appreciation of God as a verb was expressed in poetic terms: “Here is God’s purpose – For God, to me, it seems, is a verb not a noun, proper or improper; is the articulation not the art, objective or subjective; is loving, not the abstraction ‘love’ commanded or entreated; is knowledge dynamic, not legislative code, not proclamation law, not academic dogma, nor ecclesiastic canon. Yes, God is a verb, the most active…”
The most compelling aspect of Fuller’s discovery is how it strikes a chord not only with how we can get to know God and participate in God’s divine life, but in the character of how we worship and live, in response to faith nurtured by the Eucharist. We know God and share God’s life because God verbed and, for the most part, so do we.
“What does our participation in, and our daily faith responses in light of the Eucharist, reveal about its grammar?”
Sunday through Saturday is made up of a whole series of practices that communicates something about the inspiration of Jesus Christ upon us. Very often it is through simple actions that we take in response to opportunities that life throws at us and through utilizing the things of the world to assist in God’s sanctification of daily life. We see this modelled time and again in the gospel’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry methods. The saga of the healing of the man born blind involved the careful use of Jesus’ words framed into questions and the making of simple mud paste from his own saliva. The staggering response to these simple actions is proclaimed in the communion antiphon for the fourth Sunday of Lent: “The Lord anointed my eyes: I went, I washed, I saw, and I believed in God.” Similarly, it is through breathing life into verbs such as “listening,” “consoling,” “forgiving,” “feeding,” “holding,” “gathering,” “clothing,” and “visiting” that we have the potential to engender God’s life where it remains undisclosed.
In Times of Yearning, Practices of Faith, Craig Dykstra and Dorothy C. Bass explore the idea that Christian worship, and the Eucharist in particular, acts as a rehearsal for the way of life we are inspired to live modelled on Christ. The actions and gestures that comprise our lives of faith in the quotidian are gathered in worship and amplified. The celebration of the Eucharist by the gathered community becomes an active voice for the assembled. Here all are invited to welcome reflections of activities, occurrences and ways of life that have been lived as they are enacted liturgically: the Eucharist becomes the setting for rehearsing the practical craft of Christian living. In worship,
We use the familiar elements of everyday life – food, water, oil, embrace, word – to proclaim and celebrate what God is doing in the world and in our lives. Worship distils the Christian meaning of the practices and holds them up for the whole community to see… In Eucharist, every one of the Christian practices finds guidance. The worshipers experience the extravagant hospitality of God at the table and commit themselves to extend God’s welcome to others; they collectively say no to what is harmful and yes to what is good; they keep the Sabbath holy as a joyful celebration of Christ’s resurrection. A Christian community at worship is a community gathered for rehearsal.
The notion of rehearsal can be an interesting one especially for those who were socialized into faith as children. Next to adults, children “verb faith” with comparable ease. Rehearsing what Christian life and worship means for children is predominately practical and repetitive, because doing and touching impresses more than hearing and seeing. There is something eminently childlike in being able to comprehend both the need and value of allowing the Eucharist to have its active voice so that the verbs which gather up our lives of faith become increasingly Christ-centered. As Ann Garrido observes, “Young children are not particularly interested in the end product of their work, but in the doing itself, over and over again… children reflect on the truths of the faith in a circular, rather than linear fashion. Like the liturgical calendar, they will return again and again to the themes they find essential and continually draw new connections between these themes – generally while in the process of working with a familiar material or artwork.”
It is certainly an interesting prospect that the capacity to “verb faith” has already been weaved into who we were and what we did in our formative years. Perhaps it is in that kind of realization, and from our own childhood recollections of grappling with God and faith matters, that the patterns as to how the Eucharist speaks audibly into life were received with childlike awe and accompanied by busy creative hands.
God’s Body Language and Depth Grammar
The idea of worship acting as a rehearsal for Christian life led Thomas G. Long to designate it God’s language school: “a place where we are trained to speak in new ways and given the vocabulary to express a new reality.” It seems to me that if worship serves this purpose along with others, then we can accurately describe the Eucharist as God’s body language. The scriptures portray a God who talks with creative speech. It only takes two descriptive verses of Genesis to be read before the voice is handed to God: “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light” (Gen 1:3). The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews begins corresponding with an acute reminder of God’s speech legacy: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1: 1- 2a). Through Jesus Christ God suddenly became audible within a human body/sound system, serving divine purposes.
From the moment Jesus instituted the Eucharist in the upper room God’s new body language began to be tested on disciples whose fledgling faith would be called upon to recognize and respond to a risen Christ at Emmaus a few evenings later. For those who directly encountered the risen Christ what seems to emerge from the enigmatic descriptions in the gospels is that the risen Lord nurtured believers into both reading and replicating his body language which would be translatable within eucharistic gatherings. The New Testament church acquired a grateful and welcoming sacrificial spirit so that believers could be blessed, broken, shared, offered and then, through service, become God’s body language within the world.
Interest in non-verbal communication and languages of the body has increased in recent decades. Extensive research undertaken by Albert Mehrabian demonstrates that spoken words have little impact when attempting clear communication: he discovered that words, tone of voice, and body language account for 7%, 38% and 55% of effective communication, respectively. You may appreciate for yourselves how the longer we live with the same people necessitates fewer words as we acquire abilities to read others’ speech through their bodies. I was struck as a child how often grandparents said very little to each other. After many years of companionship these people were fully present to each other without the need for words.
The Eucharist can speak to every facet of life precisely because it nourishes everything that is life.
If the Eucharist reveals God’s body language, then what is required is a deeper style of grammar to shape and structure God’s speech. Facilitating the Eucharist’s depth of language requires us to take our intuitive capacities seriously. For Newman understanding how human intuition operates was crucial. He saw it as immediate and responsive. Intuition is able to bring us to attain a truthful appreciation of the absoluteness of reality. “Intuition,” Newman stated, “is the gift of the few as well as of the multitude. It is the exercise of a faculty, which is stronger or weaker in this man or that, but of which in every state truth is the object.”
Reading and responding to God’s eucharistic body language is something that is already part of our intuitive experience and who we are as God’s gathered people. We might not necessarily recognize that, but by giving attention to our past experiences of eucharistic worship it is possible to detect how the shape of the liturgy, our sense of unity with God and God’s people, listening to God’s word proclaimed, and the physical actions of worship, speak intuitively to us of God’s presence and purposes. This is a kind of depth grammar that structures God’s body language whether accompanied by speech or not. It is a grammar which reveals that God is not just with us, but in-between us. As Richard Rohr poignantly states, “…far from consuming spiritual gifts for yourself alone, you must receive all words of God tenderly and subtly… If something comes toward you with grace and can pass through you and toward others with grace, you can trust it as the voice of God.”
The Shape of Eucharistic Grammar – “In the Round”
The fame of Andrei Rublev is attached to the icon of the Trinity that he created. Born around 1360, Rublev produced many sacred images in and around Moscow, but the image of three gold-winged figures seated in the round is recognizable the world over. The scene is a representation of Abraham receiving three visitors as he camps by the oak of Mamre (Gen 18: 1- 15). As he serves his guests a meal Abraham seems to be communicating directly with God. These visitors, like the angel figures in the icon represent, or are a metaphor, for the three persons of the Trinity. Seated in the round, in the center of them is a white table upon which is a golden chalice-like bowl that is filled with roasted lamb.
My very first eucharistic instincts emerged from being in the round. A few days before Holy Week began, I received a message from a former member of the parish in which I was raised. In light of COVID restrictions, part of her message read “We all need a Winsley Holy Week this year!” What is a “Winsley Holy Week?” The story of this parish in the south west of England is one of getting things beautifully out of proportion. The parish serves a small commuter village in the middle of west Wiltshire’s ample agricultural landscape. In that place and within the small church building I grappled with and learned how to intuit God’s eucharistic body language.
Holy Week brought an enormous enterprise for this small village parish. For that week, the staunch Victorian furniture within the church was picked up and rearranged so that the people worshiped in the round. As a faith community it was quite a project with many parishioners choosing to take a week’s vacation from work so that they could fully immerse themselves into planning, preparing, and then participating in celebrating the divine and human events. Community passion plays, all-night watch of prayer, a Good Friday workshop for the village youth all accompanied our daily eucharistic celebrations and the sacred triduum. The activities that filled those days leapt out of and fed back into the round.
Spotlights were erected directly above the altar which sat in the center of us. My friend Matthew took responsibility for this specially constructed lighting. The years of practice mastering these lights created enough light and shadow so that the saying “in the round,” became synonymous with living a different kind of life for a week when God was not only with us, but in between us, as we formed a perfect in the round. Matthew’s mastery of lighting this week-long community worship gave all of us ample opportunities to have glimpses of God’s body language as the Lord became recognizable as we looked at each other’s faces entirely through the spectacle of the Eucharist in the center of us.
In retrospect, I now see that we grew into becoming a people, a village community of hospitality, through the eucharistic grammar shaping lives. Just as Rublev’s icon pictures for us Abraham’s hospitality, in the same way we learned as eucharistic people to welcome Jesus through his eucharistic body language as his life was made evident in the round.
- Herbert McCabe, “The Eucharist as language,” Modern Theology 15:2, April 1999, 132. ↑
- Anthony J. Godzieba, “The Catholic Sacramental Imagination and the Access/Excess of Grace,” New Theology Review, 2008, 21. ↑
- R. Buckminster Fuller, No More Secondhand God and other writings (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1971), 23. ↑
- Craig Dykstra and Dorothy C. Bass, “Times of Yearning, Practices of Faith,” in Dorothy C. Bass, Ed., Practicing our Faith: Away of Life for a Searching People (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019), 9- 10. ↑
- Ann M. Garrido, Mustard Seed Preaching (Chicago, IL: Archdiocese of Chicago: Lay Training Publications, 2004), 15. ↑
- Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 54. ↑
- Albert Mehrabian, Silent Messages: a wealth of information about nonverbal communication (body language), 2016. http://www.kaaj.com/psych/smorder.html. Accessed April 20, 2021. ↑
- John Henry Newman, The Theological Papers of John Henry Newman on Faith and Certainty, Ed., Hugo M. de Achaval and Derek Homes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 69. ↑
- Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ (New York, Convergent, 2019), 88. ↑