Transformation Behind Bars

In his memoir, Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi recalls the day when he struggled to remember a passage from Dante’s Inferno. He and a French prisoner were carrying a hundred-pound pot of soup suspended on a pole. As they walked Levi felt compelled to recite the “canto of Ulysses.” He is frustrated by his inability to recall a particular tercet accurately. When the words come to him, he is overcome with emotion.

Remember your birthright
You were not made to live like brutes
But to pursue wisdom and virtue. (Dante’s Inferno, canto 26, lines 118–120)

Levi recalls the moment “like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.” His fellow prisoner was equally moved. “Pikolo begs me to repeat it. . . he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular, and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders.” (Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi; New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959, 211).

“Many of us aspire to escape from our own dark forests to better places. In prison the need is more urgent.”

I have spent much of the last decade listening to incarcerated individuals read and reimagine Dante’s Divine Comedy in prisons from New York’s fabled Sing Sing to Indonesia’s notorious Kerobokan jail to the Sollicciano prison in Dante’s home town of Florence. Like Levi, the men and women I meet in prison temporarily forget where they are when they immerse themselves in Dante’s poem. The medieval epic inspires them to write about their own voyages from past hells to future heavens. People behind bars identify with Dante for the same reasons that anyone might who takes the time to reflect on the poem. Many of us aspire to escape from our own dark forests to better places. In prison the need is more urgent.

For several years I have been bringing Yale students to prison to listen to incarcerated men reimagining Dante’s poem on their own terms. My course, “Performance Behind Bars,” is hosted by the Institute of Sacred Music, but students sign up from all over the University, from the Drama and Business Schools to the Schools of Music and Public Health. Undergraduates also enroll.

One semester we chose Ulysses’s speech as a point of departure. Jennifer Donelson, a specialist in medieval music from Saint Joseph’s Seminary of the Archdiocese of New York, set part of the Italian text to a Gregorian chant so that the Yale students and their incarcerated collaborators could sing together as a first step in entering Dante’s world. They chanted the tercet that Levi found so compelling, “Fatti non foste a viver come brutti/Ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.”

The Italian language of these lines was foreign to them, but like Primo Levi, men living in a Connecticut maximum security prison found it easy to relate to characters who refused to live “like brutes” and chose instead to pursue “virtue and knowledge.” Prison in America is a dehumanizing experience. Incarcerated individuals have their names replaced by a number and often feel that their humanity is erased by the stigma associated with the label of “convict.”

“Their stories from the past were grim, but their dreams of paradise were touchingly simple: hearing the laughter of their children, hugging a loved one, attending a family barbecue.”

At first, the incarcerated men in our course were wary of Dante’s medieval epic, but as the weeks passed they enthusiastically followed the poet on his journey from Hell through Purgatory to Paradise, and found many parallels to their own life stories. They were particularly impressed to learn that Dante, like them, was a convicted criminal, and had written his masterpiece under a sentence of death, exiled from his home and family. Dante underwent a profound transformation during his journey and men in prison are also in the process of transformation. Sometimes the changes experienced in prison are for the worse, but the men who had chosen to be in our class were determined to emerge from incarceration better than they had come in. Reading about Dante’s journey became a catalyst for re-examining the hells they had lived through and the heavens they hoped to find in the years ahead. Their stories from the past were grim, but their dreams of paradise were touchingly simple: hearing the laughter of their children, hugging a loved one, attending a family barbecue.

The final performance script wove together the words of the incarcerated students and fragments of Dante’s poem. Their overlapping stories demonstrated the lasting relevance of the medieval text. Lines from the opening passage of Dante’s Inferno (here in italic bold) inspired an incarcerated student named Ivan to write the following:

I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.

I came to myself in Level 5 Maximum security, where you find murderers, thieves and gang members, a place of lies and loneliness, manifestations of physical, mental and emotional agony.

And so. . . I lost hope of reaching the heights.

Another incarcerated student named Lawrence was moved by Dante’s discussion of justice in canto 18 of Paradiso and decided to redefine the word in terms that matched his experience as a young African-American man:

Is this “justice” or is this “just ice”?
Only one who has knowledge of self can serve “justice.”
“Just” is the reward, and “ice” is the penalty.
When one is penalized, he or she is served with “just-ice”
meaning to be frozen in a mental state of 32 degrees below zero.
Is this “justice” or is this “just ice.”
Because of the color of my skin I’m a usual suspect.
A drug dealer is what some suggest.
They lock us down for years and use us as test subjects.

Listening to the perspectives of writers like Ivan and Lawrence, Yale students also underwent a transformation. Many had read about America’s criminal justice system, but learning about its flaws first-hand inside a prison provided a deeper level of understanding. Hearing Dante’s poem read and interpreted by men in prison gave them insights into the text’s contemporary relevance that would be hard to duplicate in an ordinary classroom setting. Their goal was to help create a theatrical performance that interwove fragments of Dante’s medieval poetry with the street-savvy vernacular of their incarcerated collaborators. Each semester’s script was completely different from the one before, but the results were always astonishing when they were performed in the prison by the writers for an incarcerated audience. The performances at the Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel were charged with a different kind of power. At Marquand the Yale students performed the scripts written by their incarcerated classmates for an audience that included the campus community and the families of the men in prison. Family members were not permitted to attend the performance in prison, so coming to Yale was their only opportunity to hear the words that had been written by their loved ones.

These long-distance reunions were often tearful as mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of the incarcerated students heard stories that had never been expressed to them in person. At one performance in the Marquand Chapel a Yale undergraduate was performing the words that had been written by her prison partner, a man named Preach. Preach’s young daughter had died while he was in prison, and Dante’s depictions of parent-child relationships had led Preach to write about parental relationships in his own family. His rap rhythms echoed the propulsive forward momentum of Dante’s terza rima verse form.

My father left me at an early age
Sending me into an early rage
Some of the reasons why I’m in this cage

 And God knew all this? All this was preordained and staged?
What? He’s the author, and I’m some character in the book?
And he’s just turning the page?

When I was out in the world I was so godless
About my crime, found guilty on all charges.
I just hung my head low, but my mother took it the hardest

Now I’m in prison, hoping my young daughter doesn’t get knocked up
She looking for love in all the wrong places
Daddy’s not there, Daddy locked up.
Sins of the father!

I remember hearing a woman gasp when the student said, “My mother took it the hardest.” I thought the cast had arranged the off-stage interjection as a well-planned sound effect, but I hadn’t noticed it in rehearsal. Eventually I realized that the interjection was not planned. The gasp had come from a woman sitting in the front row of the audience. It was Preach’s mother.

In the post-performance discussion she spoke to the audience through her tears. She said that his living with Dante’s text was the best therapy her son had received in prison while working through the grief of losing his daughter. Her comments suggested that she and the other spectators may have experienced their own form of transformation. “It was very emotional and heartwarming,” she continued, “to see the inmates’ true life stories acted out by the students. It helps me to better understand the part we [parents] played in our loved ones being incarcerated. Yes, even us, the good parents. It was helpful but painful.”


Ron Jenkins, a recipient of Guggenheim, Sheldon, and Fulbright Fellowships, is a visiting Professor of Religion and the Arts at the Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. This year his Yale students collaborated with formerly incarcerated men on the creation of “A Freedom Oratorio,” inspired by their reading of Dante and performed at Marquand Chapel in New Haven, St. Paul’s Chapel in Manhattan, and the Mott Haven Reformed Church in the Bronx, located in a 1.8 square mile neighborhood where over two hundred children have parents who are incarcerated.

A National Public Radio feature on “Performance Behind Bars” can be found at the following link. To hear the voices of the incarcerated men reading their work and discussing what Dante’s poem means to them scroll down and click on the sound cloud. http://wnpr.org/post/connecticut-inmates-emerge-dantes-inferno

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Jenkins, Ron (2018) “Transformation Behind Bars,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 1, Article 3. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

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Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker, and the Liturgy

Fritz Eichenberg, "Christ of the Breadlines," woodcut, 1950.
Fritz Eichenberg, “Christ of the Breadlines,” woodcut, 1950.

In the opening lines of The Other America, Michael Harrington’s classic study of mid-twentieth-century poverty in the United States, the author acknowledges that it was through “Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement that I first came into contact with the terrible reality of involuntary poverty and the magnificent ideal of voluntary poverty.” His eye-opening portrait revealed a depth of poverty in the United States that had been largely hidden at the time. Yet it was in fact the “economic underworld of American life,” he wrote, “a culture, an institution, a way of life.” Harrington had spent two years (1951–52) at the Catholic Worker house near New York City’s Bowery. While his study of poverty would take him to the far corners of the land—from inner cities and migrant camps to the forgotten hollers of coal country—Harrington nonetheless wrote that his Catholic Worker experience had been “the one place in the Other America where the poor are actually the sum total of misfits from all the social classes.” The end of the line for the Bowery, he noted, “is the hospital and potter’s field.”[1]

For nearly half a century, the poverty of New York’s Bowery was the chosen home and daily experience of Dorothy Day (1897–1980).

For nearly half a century, the poverty of New York’s Bowery was the chosen home and daily experience of Dorothy Day (1897–1980). In 1933, she and Peter Maurin (1877–1949) founded the Catholic Worker movement, a radical alternative to the poverty-generating culture of American capitalism. As Maurin put it succinctly in one of his “Easy Essays”: “I want a change, and a radical change, from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.”[2]

The Catholic Worker’s platform was based on the daily practice of the works of mercy (feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoner, burying the dead, and forgiving one’s enemies), all at a personal sacrifice. The aim was to create small communities based on what Maurin called “cult, culture, and cultivation.” The Catholic Worker was not meant to be just another social-service agency, designed to alleviate the privations of the poor. It was a personalist and communitarian movement, inspired and maintained by sharing the poverty of the crucified Christ in the poor. As Day wrote in 1950: “It is our greatest message, to be poor with the poor.”[3] In fact, she elaborated, “We cannot even see our brother in need without first stripping ourselves.”[4] Further, the Catholic Worker’s life of voluntary poverty was meant to arouse “indifferent Catholics to the crying need of a return to the spirit of Franciscan poverty and charity.”[5]

Still, Dorothy Day was never content simply to direct others about what they should be doing. First and foremost, she undertook to live these hard teachings herself. “In what does our poverty consist?” she was asked in 1961. “In toilets out of commission in town, dishwashers who wipe their noses on the dish towels, people who are mental cases.”[6] There was but one means of being able to live in such a challenging environment, year in and year out, fully and humanly. “Without the sacraments of the Church,” Day wrote, “primarily the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper as it is sometimes called, I certainly do not think that I could go on.”[7]

Because of the economic order, she wrote later during the Vietnam War, our “streets are alive with not just drunk and drug addicts but with the saddest of all victims of our war economy, the ‘insane.’”

From the beginning of their movement, both Maurin and Day were in contact with the Benedictines at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. At the time, both Abbot Alcuin Deutsch and Dom Virgil Michel were pioneers in the liturgical movement in the United States. Day wrote to Deutsch in 1934: “We have been trying from the start of our work to link up the liturgy with the Church’s social doctrine, realizing that the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ is at the root of both.”[8] That same year, Virgil Michel requested that the abbot send copies of all the books published by the abbey’s Liturgical Press to the New York Catholic Worker, “to help you [as he wrote to Day] and to spread the work of the liturgical movement.”[9] The abbot did so, and also instituted an exchange subscription between Orate Fratres (later Worship), the abbey’s heralded periodical on liturgical matters, and The Catholic Worker paper. Both Day and Maurin traveled to Collegeville in those early years, and Virgil Michel in turn visited the Catholic Worker in New York in 1935. His article in Orate Fratres that same November (“The Liturgy the Basis of Social Regeneration”) underscored the many concordances his analysis shared with themes in The Catholic Worker, particularly the emphasis on societal cooperation rather than competition, and on community rather than individualism—the latter, Michel noted, a hallmark of capitalist societies.[10] To this, Day boldly added: “It is the present social ‘order’ that brings on wars today,” which is why “it is impossible save by heroic charity to live in the present social order and be Christians.”[11]  Because of the economic order, she wrote later during the Vietnam War, our “streets are alive with not just drunk and drug addicts but with the saddest of all victims of our war economy, the ‘insane.’”[12]

In her February 1941 “On Pilgrimage” column, Day wrote that “food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul. Hence, leaders of the work, as many as we can induce to join us, must go to daily Mass.” In a similar vein, reflecting on the renewal of the liturgy instituted by Vatican II, Day wrote “the Mass begins our day; it is our food and drink, our delight, our refreshment, our courage, our light.” It enables us, she continued, “literally ‘to put on Christ,’ as St. Paul said. . . . Only by nourishing ourselves as we have been bidden to do by Christ, by eating His body and drinking His blood, can we become Christ and put on the new man.”[13]

But putting on the new man would entail taking on the suffering of others, for, as Day noted, “our sacraments flow from the fountain of the Cross.”[14] In her copy of Louis Bouyer’s Liturgical Piety, she had underlined a passage about taking up one’s cross. If one hopes to refuse doing harm to others, Bouyer wrote, one “cannot avoid taking the burden of their pain upon himself. But this fact also is what causes the Christian to love the world with the love of Him Who ‘so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.’”[15]

It was because of the liturgical movement that Day and the Catholic Worker came to emphasize the importance, not only of the Mass, but also of praying throughout the day, including community evening prayer. “It was the liturgy which led us to praying the psalms with the Church,” she remembered, “leading us to an understanding joy in prayer.”[16]  Without prayer, she repeated in 1969, “we could not continue. As breath is to the body, prayer is to the soul.”[17]

Dorothy Day began her own day by savoring a cup of coffee and reciting the psalms. (When traveling, she carried a jar of instant coffee, which allowed her to rise early without troubling her hosts: all she had to do was add tap water.) “Often,” she remarked, “I find that I have started praying before I am really awake, just as I fall asleep praying Lord Jesus, have mercy on us sinners, over and over.”[18] She valued repetitious prayer, particularly the rosary and the psalms. “Strange how repetition, reading the [psalms] each day, instead of becoming stale and repetitious, becomes even fresher: verses stand out, a light glows on what was obscure and hidden. There is an increase in understanding.”[19]

For Day, faith (and prayer) came first, which in turn led to an increase in knowledge and understanding. Her prayer was neither fuzzy nor ethereal, but concrete and sacramental: “Woke this morning with the feeling very strong—I belong to someone to whom I owe devotion. Recalled early love and that joyous sense of being not on my own, but belonging to someone who loved me completely.”[20] Ten years after her conversion she had written that “one cannot properly be said to understand the love of God without understanding the deepest fleshly as well as spiritual love between man and woman. The two should go hand in hand. You cannot separate the soul from the body.”[21] The following year she recounted that, “The other day at the Communion rail it was as though the Lord held my shoulder tightly in his clasp.”[22] Similarly, writing in 1970 for the Third Hour, an ecumenical journal, she described prayer as “the clasp of the hand, the joy of keen delight in the consciousness of the Other. Indeed, it is like falling in love.”[23]

It should be clear by now that Dorothy Day had a highly attuned aesthetic sense, one that included an appreciation of both physical and natural beauty. This sense extended to the arts and music, particularly to orchestral works and opera. In the liturgy, she appreciated the sung psalms of Joseph Gelineau and invited the composer Mary Lou Williams to present her jazz Mass at a Catholic Worker peace conference. She loved the 10:30 Puerto Rican Mass at her local parish, she wrote in 1979, the year before she died, because “the entire congregation sings so heartily.”[24]  She was particularly appreciative that the Vatican Council had “broken down barriers between the clergy and the laity.”[25]

In 1967, Day attended the Congress on the Laity in Rome, where she was chosen to be one of two American representatives (the other being astronaut James McDivitt) to receive Communion from Pope Paul VI. It was not a particularly prayerful experience for her. (She and the other 150 communicants chosen to approach the pope had been herded into a special staging area prior to the Mass.) But, she recounted, when she did receive the Eucharist, she felt happy to be “representing the men from our soup line, the pickets from Delano and all of Cesar Chavez’s fellow workers, and the little babies and small children of the agricultural workers who are present at our day-care center at our farm at Tivoli.”[26]

Three years later, Day and her friend Eileen Egan of Catholic Relief Services were flying to Australia, where Day was to address a Vietnam Moratorium rally at Sydney’s Town Hall. As they crossed the International Dateline, Egan remarked to Day that fortuitously they had missed the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. “Don’t rejoice,” Day told Egan. “We are missing the feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord.”[27]

At the Eucharistic Congress held in Philadelphia in 1976, however, Day did not miss the feast—or the anniversary. That Hiroshima Day she gave a major address to 8,000 attendees at a session titled “Women and the Eucharist.” (As it happened, downtown at the cathedral, Mass was simultaneously being offered for the armed forces.) In her remarks, Day said that she had probably been asked to speak at the assembly because she was associated with “breadlines, with hungry men and women, and all the destitute in our big cities.” She then recalled her conversion fifty years before, the gratitude she felt for her daughter Tamar’s birth, and her own subsequent love of the sacraments. The Church, Day said, was her mother and nourisher. It taught her “the crowning love of the life of the Spirit.” She then reminded her listeners that penance must come before Communion, “otherwise we partake of the Sacrament unworthily.” Finally, Day pivoted to the most painful part of her address: that on that particular August 6 in Philadelphia, a Mass was being “celebrated” (“how strange to use such a word” in this instance, she said) for the military. Had no one in charge of the Eucharistic Congress remembered the significance of Hiroshima Day? “Why not a Mass for the military on some other day?” she inquired. “I plead,” she concluded, “that we will regard that military Mass, and all other Masses today, as an act of penance, begging God to forgive us . . . for the sin of our country, which we love.”[28] When she had finished, there was thunderous and prolonged applause.[29]

At the end of an article she had written for Commonweal five years following the bombing of Hiroshima, Day quoted the French author Georges Bernanos on how to maintain hope in the nuclear age: “Every article of Christ’s divine charity is today more precious for your security—for your security, I say—than all the atom bombs in all the stock piles,” Bernanos had written.[30] It is only by our love—exemplified in the works of mercy, Day noted elsewhere—that we will be judged: a love strengthened and sustained by Scripture and the Eucharist, which in turn have a “strength no power on earth can withstand.”[31] For Dorothy Day, the life of witness, of poverty, and of prayer were all of a piece. But it was the last—what Peter Maurin called “the primacy of the spiritual”—that enlivened and sustained the others.


Patrick JordanPatrick Jordan is a former managing editor of both Commonweal and the Catholic Worker. He studied with the Franciscans at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley; did nursing care with the Hawthorne Dominicans; read Martin Buber under Maurice Friedman at Pendle Hill; and met his wife Kathleen in 1969, when both were working at the Catholic Worker in New York City. He is the author of Dorothy Day: Love in Action (Liturgical Press, 2015), and the editor of Hold Nothing Back: Writings by Dorothy Day (Liturgical Press, 2016), and Only Wonder Comprehends: John Garvey in Commonweal (Liturgical Press, 2018).

[1]Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 5, 23, 10, 91.

[2] Peter Maurin, The Green Revolution: Easy Essays on Catholic Radicalism. Second revised edition (Fresno, California: Academy Guild Press, 1961), 63.

[3] Dorothy Day, The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day [hereafter Diaries]. Edited by Robert Ellsberg (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2008), 143.

[4] The Catholic Worker, May 1952. See, By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day [hereafter Little]. Edited by Robert Ellsberg (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), 109.

[5] The Catholic Worker, June 1934. In ibid, 63.

[6] Diaries,  315, May 24, 1961.

[7] Diaries, 498, November 5, 1970.

[8] See Brigid O’Shea Merriman, Searching for Christ: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 77.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 80.

[11] The Catholic Worker, May 1972, see Little, 314. Diaries, 76, February 14, 1944.

[12] Diaries, 581, August 7, 1972.

[13] “The Council and the Mass,” The Catholic Worker, September 1962, 2. See Merriman, op.cit., 98.

[14] See William D. Miller, All Is Grace: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day [hereafter All] (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1987), 198.

[15] Louis Bouyer, Liturgical Piety. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1955), 271.

[16] Acceptance speech for the National Liturgical Conference Award, August 8, 1968. See All, 116.

[17] Diaries, 458, July 9, 1969.

[18] Ibid., 436, February 4, 1969.

[19] Ibid., 51, January 17, 1940.

[20] Ibid., 383, June 16, 1966.

[21] Ibid, 26, August 6, 1937.

[22] Ibid, 32, August 10, 1938.

[23] See, Little, 183.

[24] Diaries, 623, January 21, 1979.

[25] Little, 331.

[26] See, On Pilgrimage: The Sixties (New York: Curtis Books, 1972), 139.

[27] Eileen Egan, “Dorothy Day: Pilgrim of Peace,” in A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker, edited by Patrick G. Coy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 103.

[28] The Catholic Worker, September 1976, 1, 5.

[29] Egan, op. cit., 71.

[30] “The Scandal of the Works of Mercy,” Commonweal, November 4, 1949. Reprinted in Hold Nothing Back: Writings by Dorothy Day, edited by Patrick Jordan (Collegeville, Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 2016), 65.

[31] The Catholic Worker, June 1972, in Little, 316.

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Recommended Citation: Jordan, Patrick (2018) “Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker, and the Liturgy,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 1, Article 2. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

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Eating Jesus

A few months back, I began the morning pretty grumpy. I’d arrived at my local parish, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, hoping to have a nice, peaceful moment chanting the Psalms. But there were already two huge trucks outside the gates, idling noisily, waiting to deliver food for The Food Pantry, which takes place in the middle of the sanctuary every Friday. By the time Morning Prayer was over, the enthusiastic driver had brought in more than a dozen pallets: somewhere around six tons of yams, onions, new potatoes, black beans, noodles, cabbage, rice, carrots, oranges, chicken sausage, and a towering stack of organic Belgian endive. And that was before we even got the nine gigantic sacks of bread.

They’re generally very poor. They might be widows or foreigners, blind or mentally ill, undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, Congo, or China, drug users, head-injured guys, feeble old men or sullen teenage girls with babies.

I gave the driver a cup of coffee, and our volunteers started straggling in and unpacking the pallets and setting up tables in a circle around the altar, and then, grumpily, I tried to figure out what to cook for their lunch. We usually have about forty volunteers, almost all of them people who came to get food and stayed to feed others. They’re generally very poor. They might be widows or foreigners, blind or mentally ill, undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, Congo, or China, drug users, head-injured guys, feeble old men or sullen teenage girls with babies. But one way or another many of our volunteers don’t always get enough to eat during the week. So we like to sit down together for a big family meal before we open the pantry at noon and start giving out free groceries to the crowds.

I rushed to the neighborhood store to buy supplies for lunch: a nice quick minestrone, figuring I’d use up some of that stupid endive in a salad, since I doubted we could give it all away, especially to the Chinese grandmothers who are deeply suspicious of anything white ladies tell them is tasty. When I came back from shopping one of our tweakier volunteers blurted out: “Sara? We’re gonna have at least sixty people for lunch today, OK? Oh, I forgot to tell you to buy milk for coffee. Can you go get some now, OK? And there’s so many helpers we’re ahead of schedule, so can we eat early, Sara, OK?”

Yeah, OK, I said, and then slammed my finger in the cabinet door, and had a snippy little exchange with another even more persistent volunteer, and the pilot light on the stove was broken, and by the time St. Gregory’s priest, my dear friend Paul, walked into the church kitchen, all happy and enthusiastic and ready to help cook, he looked at me and stopped and said, “What’s the matter?”

“We have sixty volunteers for lunch,” I told him bitterly. “And there’s gonna be a huge crowd getting groceries this week, since it’s the end of the month. And now everyone wants to eat early.”

“Great!” said Paul. I looked at him as if he were insane. “That’s great, because what are we trying to do here? Feed as many people as possible, right?”

He was, irritatingly enough, right. I tried to focus on feeding as many people as possible. And when I got home from the pantry—actually we only served 420 people, and there was enough minestrone left over to send home with Paul, and we did get rid of all the bread and even the Belgian endive, every single bit of it—when I got home, exhausted and, despite my best efforts, still sort of grumpy, there was a postcard from a former volunteer, Alice, a wacky evangelical Black grandmother who now lives in Georgia. “I know,” she’d scrawled, with a smiley-face, “the people are just bursting with joy of love and laughter to know that Jesus Christ is always at St. Gregory of Nyssa Food Pantry every week providing a Great Big Bundle of Bountifulness of Blessing there. Blessings!”

Jesus is real, because there are eight tons of real food, right here on earth, feeding as many hungry people as possible. My flesh is real food.

Which is to say that Alice, like Paul and everyone else at the pantry, understands what the Gospel truly means: Jesus is real, because there are eight tons of real food, right here on earth, feeding as many hungry people as possible. My flesh is real food.

And then I remembered that I’d promised to visit my four-year-old friend Sophie that evening for her favorite activity, one many four-year-olds love: a tea party. The four-year-old pours the imaginary tea, usually into doll cups, and you pick it up and pretend to sip. “My,” you say, “how delicious! Thank you! May I have some more tea, please?” And the child, delighted, pours you some more imaginary tea. Endlessly.  It’s like attending the kind of church where the most important things in the room appear to be the pristine white linen decorously draping the altar, and the silence and obedience and respectability of the parishioners, and the absolute whiteness of the perfectly round, completely salt-free, gluten-free, odorless, tasteless and flavorless communion wafers. You creep forward quietly. “The blood of Christ,” someone dressed in sexless robes whispers. They hold a toy goblet of pale wine for you to take a miniscule sip. “Amen,” you say, and they wipe it off with another white napkin. And the server offers the next guest a sip of imaginary blood.

Which is to say that the white-tablecloth church server, like my four-year-old friend Sophie, understands what the Gospel truly means: Jesus is real, because there is a precious gift revealed in the offering of a deep, beautiful ritual that transcends the literal and the material. I am the living bread that comes down from heaven.

And this is Eucharist. All of it. We cannot reduce truth to only one level: believing instead of really eating; eating instead of really believing. The redeeming, revolutionary thing about Communion it that it means both things. Heaven and earth. Body and soul. The Eucharist is real because it unites the hungry people at the food pantry and the hungry people at the altar rail. It unites the poetry of a child’s tea party with the physicality of the chicken sausage messing up our floor. It unites ordinary people like us––who are, after all, flesh and blood and spirit––with God in Christ, who is flesh and blood and spirit.

Life in Jesus is not disembodied. Just in case you miss that point, remember how Jesus invites his friends to eat him in one of the more upsetting passages in John’s gospel, using a very particular verb. He doesn’t invite us to dine or to savor. He asks us to “munch” or “gnaw” on his flesh, using a graphic word that describes hungry, noisy eating, the sort of eating that an animal does. This is eating that is urgent, even desperate. It’s chomping on Jesus as if gnawing on a barbequed pork rib. It’s eating as though life depends on it—because it does.

So our eating of Jesus is not spiritual in the sense that it’s make-believe. It’s not an abstract, ritual performance in which we take the bread and wine of Holy Communion as if the phrase “Christ’s body and blood” were merely a poetic metaphor. This bread, this flesh, is real.

But Communion, also, is not just about physical food­­—like the manna our ancestors ate, or the tons of groceries we share at the pantry—food that we eat, and then die. Eating Jesus is profoundly spiritual in the sense that the Holy of Holies enters our human bodies, in order to change us into the likeness of God.

Jesus asks us not only to eat him but to become him: a mystery which lives fully in, and yet transcends, our mortal flesh. In the words of the great Johannine scholar Maurice Sendak, “I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me.”

Furthermore, in the most spiritual and unworldly, the most concrete and demanding statement of all, Jesus proclaims that everyone who eats him becomes him, and thus—the real scandal of the Incarnation—we all become part of each other. My individual self, still chomping on my sparerib or chewing my Belgian endive—that self, when I eat Jesus, becomes irrevocably connected with others, and I share in their life, too.

You can’t eat Jesus and stay the same.

I received my First Communion about eighteen years ago, and for quite a while I hoped that it would make me a better person. Nicer, mostly. And more spiritual. But it made me more physical, drove me to a messy church kitchen where I’d grumpily complain about feeding people. It made me less private, and far less pure. I got contaminated by everyone else who eats Jesus: the loopy evangelical lady from Georgia and five hundred poor, hungry strangers and white-robed Eucharistic ministers. My body and blood got mixed up with everyone else’s. Eucharist means there’s a likely to be a trashy marshmallow candy bar on the same plate as the organic Belgian endive, and some chunks of flesh floating in the holy chalice.

And so we give it all away, as bread for the world to feed on. We offer our literal flesh and blood, our eight tons of groceries, our imaginary tea and our ritual poetry.

And we thank God for making it real. The Eucharist isn’t intended to help us take on good deeds out of pious obligation, or liberal guilt, or because we think we should be nice. It’s not meant to encourage us to consume more beautiful, tasteful rituals, or rest in our own uplifting feelings. Jesus asks us to eat his flesh and drink his blood so that we’ll be transformed into one body, his body: so that we will become the body that God is raising from the dead.


Sara MilesSara Miles is the author of  Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion; Jesus Freak: Feeding Healing Raising the Dead; and City of God: Faith in the Streets.
www.saramiles.net

 

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Miles, Sara (2018) “Eating Jesus,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 1, Article 1. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

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