Broken bread makes us whole

Whatever else the Mass does, more often than not it awakens in us a hunger for love.

"IN A COUPLE OF YEARS, Nick will give us a hard time about this. But right now he goes along and he likes it. Of course, Ellen and I love it."

Bill smiled at me and turned back to the road and the minimal traffic. It is 8:45 on Sunday morning. Bill is driving, I am shotgun, and Bill's son, Nick, is in the back seat. Nick is 10, and he has overheard the prediction that in a couple of years he will resist what now he is going along with. Right now he is going to church. We are three males on our way to Mass.

Ellen, Bill's wife, is at home with Olivia Meredith who is 6 weeks old. I was in town, stopped by to see the baby, and stayed the night to celebrate. We embarked on a serious effort to solve the problems of the world. By the time we went to bed a few problems remained, so I rescheduled my flight until Monday. Now I am relaxing into the Sunday rituals of people I like and who like me. This is one of those unplanned happenings that feels right.

Bill is in a reflective mood. Last night has not worn off. "Livy's birth pushed us into the mystery of it all once again. You forget the deeper stuff, and then bangit hits you all over again. Kids and God. I swear they're a team. El and I do the feeding and guiding. But it is all about something greater. That's why I like going to Mass with Nick. It's like we are both part of something greater. My guess is this will make things good between us."

"Wow, I'm getting the sermon a little early."

Bill laughs. "The priest is usually better than that."

Rite of way
We turn into the church parking lot. "You can start praying now," says Bill. "This place is fender-bender heaven."

Lingerers from the previous Mass are inching their cars out. People coming for the 9 a.m. wait for spots to open. If anyone is in a hurry, they are in the wrong place.

Traffic is the chronic condition of our lives. It has turned every big-city American over the age of 10 into an amateur urban planner. The planner-complainer in me wants to fix this.

But the worshiper in me says, "Slow down." Our lives are lived with our foot on the gas pedal. Maybe the jam in the parking lot serves larger purposes. It is the beginning of a downshifting. The soul is lost in mindless rushing. Perhaps it is recovered by slowing down and going within, not just within the church building but within ourselves. More speed usually only means more anxiety.

We glide past the handicap parking spaces, unoccupied and only a few steps from the church entrance. My usual memory returns, the quick flashback that happens every time I see a handicap parking space.

My father had great difficulty with his legs so we had a handicap card we could hang from the rearview mirror. Once I was at a shopping mall with my mother. My father was not with us. We were having trouble finding a parking space. I said to my mother. "Let's pull into a handicap spot and hang the card."

"Let's leave it for someone who needs it," my mother said.

She said it without judgment, but I heard it for what it was: a mirror to my smallness. My conveniencefirst, foremost, and forever. Fight for everything whether you need it or not and before long you have a first-class attitude. Everything revolves around your promotion and protection.

Bill says he goes to church to remember that he and his son are part of something greater. This will keep them closeGod as glue. I go to find relief from my schemes, to join a wider life that holds everything together. Perhaps Bill and I are not so far apart.

We find a parking spot and join the people moving toward the church. It is late November, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. We walk with heads down, pushing into a winter wind.

Why are all these people here? Do each of them have a secret soul reason like Bill and I? I look at Nick. His father has taken his hand. I have learned never to underestimate kids. Nick is not just tagging along. Although he may not be able to speak it, there is a desire inside him. He climbs the church steps two at a time.

Before entering the church, I turn and take in all the motionless cars. The engines are off on the symbols of our rushed lives. To me it appears the cars have not been parked, but abandoned. It is as if people had suddenly had enough and decided to opt for an hour away from it all.

Behind the door
Entering a church is a stage-by-stage affair, a genuine rite of passage. The outer doors of the church are imposing and heavy-looking. However, when Bill pulls them, they open easily and close swiftly behind us. There is a sudden reduction of sound. The outer noise is stilled. It is difficult not to notice something has been left behind. In theological language what has been left behind is the world. We have crossed a threshold.

"Welcome. It's warmer in here." An usher is smiling at us. "Hi, Bill. Nick, how's it going?" He looks at me, expectantly. Bill introduces me. He shakes my hand and welcomes me again. I take off my hat and stuff my gloves into the pockets of my coat.

"There's a room for coats over here," Bill says. Nick is already out of his jacket. The room is large, but it does not have enough racks or hangers. Coats are strewn on tables and the floor. Nick's coat joins the pile on the floor. Bill takes mine, folds it with his, and drapes it over other coats on the top of the rack.

He looks at me and laughs. "It'll be there when we come out." He knows me too well. I once saw a sign in the vestibule of a downtown church that warned: watch your belongings! In this church I decide to take Bill's advice and let my belongings watch themselves.

In this vestibule the church is a social community. It has the atmosphere of a large family gathering. Mothers are undressing children who stand there regally allowing this menial service to be performed.

People are milling about exchanging news and common courtesies. Some of these people have roles and responsibilities. They are busy being busy. However, they are not officious. Friendliness is everywhere.

There is a second set of doors, another threshold to cross. These doors lead to the inner center of the church where the liturgy will take place. In this sacred space the church is a spiritual community. The mild hustle-bustle of the vestibule will change to highly structured silence, song, and speech. The social reality of the church will attend to its sacred foundations. The center of the church corresponds to the chamber of the heart in each person. This is the space where people are open to God and open to one another in the power of the Spirit.

In a few short steps we have traveled from the outer world of rush and noise into the vestibule world of social greeting and connection and then into the sacred world of silence, song, and speech. Appropriately we have shed some clothes as a sign of our journey within.

Something we do together
Bill and Nick head for their usual pew. I tag behind. We are going to sit together and engage in the same activities together. However, we are not, for the most part, going to talk to one another or look at each other. Yet it is important we are together. Something is going to happen to the quality of our togetherness by not focusing directly on it. We are going to grow closer as a result of doing something together. As the theologians say it, community is a by-product of worship.

There is a family in the pew in front of us. A little girl of about 4 turns around and looks at me. She doesn't stare, just looks. I look back and smile and then look up toward the altar. Of course, she is still looking. Children can look without embarrassment for weeks. So I glance down. She has a Bible storybook with pictures. She points to the cover picture of a friendly guy with flowing robes. "Jesus," she says.

"That's him, all right," I say. Nick laughs.

Then I realize what a stupid remark that is. "Sure, I know Jesus. That's him. I could pick him out of a crowd anywhere." Finding Jesus is the religious version of finding Waldo.

In my quicker moments I know there is no description of Jesus in the gospels, for a very good reason. Descriptions are outer appraisals that help us point to this or that individual. However people are not known by their descriptions. They are revealed in their actions. What we are here for is not to spot Jesus in a crowd but to receive Jesus' characteristic action. He can take himself into his own hands, break open his own life, and pour it into us. When we receive this life, we grow strong and become his body in the world. This is no small trick on his part and no small gift. For me, it's the path beyond my obsession with my own small ambitions.

A woman in the pulpit breaks into my reverie. She tells us it is the first Sunday of Advent and we should stand and sing, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."

The father of the little girl turns her around toward the altar. A better view of Jesus, I think. If he is going to come from anywhere, he is going to appear as the bread and wine of life and love.

As I have been told every Advent, Emmanuel means "God with us." This song is meant to stir up expectation. Its haunting melody always has that effect in me. If eagerness is a condition for welcoming God-with-us, then eagerness I will muster.

I sing passionately and off-key. For me the two go together. Both Bill and Nick laugh. So far I'm making their Mass.

Three times the priest says mercyLord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercyand three times we say it back to him. This threepeat approach drums into our heads what we cannot quite fathom. When it comes to the nature of God, we are not quick studies. Given our penchant for punishment, we are always waiting for the divine ax to fall. "God will get us" is the banner our fearful selves carry.

Perhaps this is the reason that God first put his hands over the eyes of Moses before he told him he was "abounding in steadfast mercy and love." If Moses looked straight on the enormousness of this revelation, he would have died. I fancy he would have died of disbelief. Can anything be pure mercy?

I like the Greek version the liturgy sometimes uses Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison. This mercy exercise unties this knot we have tied to our worst moments. Eleison means breaking the knot. We tie ourselves to our mistakes and then act out of them. In this way sins, our own worst moments, become our real lord. They own us and shape who we are.

We change allegiances from the sin that is lord of our lives to the Lord who can "take away the sin of the world." When we let go of our sick and secret attachment to sin, our truest identity emerges. We are children of God, but the only path to this realization is through unrelenting mercy. Because what comes easy to us is to judge and destroy life and what comes hard to us is to open to "steadfast love and forgiveness," we have to say three times that the knot has been cut and we are free.

The older I get, the more I reach for mercy. In fact, I cannot breathe without it. I suspect Bill is the same. He is in his second marriage. He was first married at 20 and divorced at 22. His self-hatred was so great we did not think he was ever going to get on with life. Somehow he found mercy and Ellen. But I am not sure in what order. Then came Nick who right now needs little mercy but is being introduced to an abundant resource that, like all sons and daughters of the earth, he will need later.

The priest is praying. It seems right. Freed from what is not us we speak the truth that is us.

Father in heaven, our hearts desire the warmth of your love and our minds are searching for the light of your Word.

I can say amen to that. So I do.

Instructions not included
The Bible is God speaking to his children through other children. Today Jeremiah is telling his brothers and sisters about the eventuality of justice. It will be led by a flower of the earth who does what is right and just.

I suppose.

Next, Saint Paul is urging his brothers and sisters to increase their love. However, he is silent about how exactly to do this. He ends by reminding us about the path. "You know the instructions we gave you in the Lord Jesus."

Pardon me. What instructions were those?

Both these messages from our ancestors were hard to hear. The lector's voice is thin and the microphone weak. Jeremiah stutters and Paul is reminding people about what he says as if they don't get it the first time. Poor communication may be part and parcel of the Christian tradition.

The child Luke has found a stronger voice to represent him to his brothers and sisters. The priest reads Luke's rendition of Jesus' strategy for surviving during times of chaos. Everything is falling apart. People are fainting from fear. In the midst of this, pray, stay awake, and stand up straight; salvation is dawning.

I would like to know how to do this: not to fall apart when everything else is collapsing.

The priest helps. He tells us hope does not come from an estimate of our situation. Sometimes things look good, and sometimes things look bad. If we depended completely on an appraisal of the outer world, we would be constantly vacillating. However, there is an inner reality we can be in touch with. Through prayer we stay in touch with God who provides strength in times of collapse. We pray not to lose heart. We survive because we stay connected to a reality that outlasts chaotic and destructive forces. We are here in this church to gain perspective and strength in order to relate to the alternating creative and destructive forces of life.

I need to hear this. I think everyone needs to hear this. How to handle job loss, sickness, disrupted relationships, failed dreams. Morehow to stay loving when situations go sour, how to gain heart when everything is conspiring to lose heart. This is sound wisdom about spiritual resources for tumultuous times.

I instinctively want to say to Nick, "Are you listening to this? You will need this someday, someday soon. It's not easy out there."

What am I doing? No sooner do I hear something true then I want to use it as a club on someone else. It is my grandmother all over again. She would come home from Mass and say, "You should have been there. The priest was talking directly to you. It would have done you some good." I resented the insinuation that I was in constant need of admonition. Adults have to lighten up on warnings and fulminations.

Soul wanderings
When the Liturgy of the Word works and there is a good sermon, I drift off. I need time to absorb it. It is one of those instructions of the Lord Jesus that Paul refers to. I don't want to lose what I am seeing so clearly. I call it "soul wandering." Part of me is there, and part of me isn't. This is either a distraction or what the whole thing is about. I really don't know which.

Even digging deep and dropping as the offertory basket passes by my lap doesn't pull me out of it.

By the time I emerge with my strengthened soul, the priest is praying and we are all listening to him. The words seem like slow motion to me. The soul wandering that took me away from the outer motions of the Mass now makes it possible for me to attend to them. I am hearing the priest's words from some space deep within myself where their truth is easily acknowledged.

Before he was given up to death, a death he freely accepted . . .

This is the condition of us all. We have not yet been given up to death, but it is inevitable. We must come to terms with it. If we ignore it or push it away, death will own us. It will create fear in us, and that fear will keep us from living, deeply living, right here and now. Jesus accepts death and so lives fully in each moment. This freedom from the power of death allows him to do something.

He took bread and gave you thanks.

He took his life into his hands, a life that he saw as food for others. This is not one action in a life of many actions. This is the premier action. He is readying himself for a gesture that is an expression of his whole person, an action that carries his complete self into the visible world.

Once his whole life is in his hands, he gives thanks. Gratitude defines his deepest sense of himself. His life is not his own. He is receiving life at every moment from the divine source, and he acknowledges this mystical flow. Gratitude wells up in him. And it is out of this fullness that he gives. His eucharistic breaking is the simple, natural, free move of grateful fullness.

He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said, "Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you."

Naturally this fullness needs to be broken to be received. The single ray of light that pushes through the prism breaks into a spectrum of color. When the single divine life flows through us into the world, it attends to every part, accommodates itself to our concrete individual existence. Jesus' desire is that we take this broken life of his and make it our own. He wants to pour his life into our life so that our life can grow strong. He is food.

Our first task is to be open to receive this life. Our second task is to realize we are this life. We receive it in order to join in its self-giving. Who was it who said, "When we eat physical food, it becomes us. When we eat spiritual food, we become it"?

My soul wanders to my grandfather. He used to play a dawn-of-time game with me. I was small, maybe 4 or 5. He would take a cookie or biscuit or roll in his hand and show it to me. He would put both hands behind his back and then bring them back in front. Both hands were closed into fists.

"If you can guess what hand the cookie is in, you can have it," he would say.

I would walk around his hands trying to catch a glimpse of cookie between the cracks of his fingers. But his hands were large and the cookie was well tucked inside. Finally, I would venture a guess and tap a hand. Both hands would open and turn over, flat as plates. On both hands was half a cookie. The scoundrel had broken the cookie in half behind his back.

I would say, "Pop, you cheated!"

But by that time he had eaten one of the halves. He would say to me, "You had better hurry."

I think we break bread and life like thathalf for us and half for others. I think Jesus ate the bread he broke and fed himself on his own life. Sacrificers are fed by their own sacrifice. That is a secret we seldom see. There is more love when it is given away than when it is kept, more love for those who give it and more love for those who receive it. In the world of Spirit there is no scarcity.

Nick is poking me and saying, peace. I come out of where I have been. I shake his hand and peace him back. Then I "peace" Bill and the little girl with the Jesus book. Once peace starts, it unfolds and keeps going. Once it is experienced, it is meant to be given away.

Now I take the word inside myself and with its repetition I open myself to receive the life that wants to give itself to me.

Let peace replace my anxiety. Let peace replace my violence. Let peace replace my numbness.

I am in the Communion line that leads to the priest. I have already received the wisdom of his words in the homily. I move over into the line with a female eucharistic minister. Somehow in the tangle of my imagination she is Ellen, her body only recently bringing forth the new life of Livy. The body of Christ, the bread of life, will flow through her. Amen, I say.

Walking back I am silent in the middle of myself. And peaceful. And alive with a life not my own.

Go in peace
The Mass is over. I feel full yet light. I know I will be back. My soul needs to wander in the land of spiritual feast.

We are rummaging for our coats. They are not where we left them. But they are there.

"Dad, let's go get some doughnuts and juice." Nick is eager. He is moving toward the community room where after-Mass socializing goes on.

"No, Nick," his father says. Let's get home to Mom and the baby." Bill's voice is adamant. Nick knows not to argue.

The cold air outside is bracing. The parking lot is beginning to move. An old man with a walker is standing behind his car parked in the handicap spot. A van has parked next to him, so close he cannot get to the driver's door with his walker. The aisle is too narrow.

He has turned around and is scanning the people coming out of church, no doubt looking for the driver of the van. He is hatless and his body is slightly shaking.

Before I can think I am next to him saying, I can squeeze in there and pull the car out.

"Oh," he hesitates. "I'm sure the guy with the van will be out any minute." Then he reconsiders, "Would you?" He hands me the keys.

I am not a wisp. I polish both car and van with belly and rear as I slide in. I pull the car out.

"Thank you," he says. "My father had a walker," I say, half apologetically. "It's not too bad," he says. "You get used to it." He waves as he pulls away.

In the car Bill says out loud and to nobody, "I wish Ellen and Livy were here."

"We'll be home in ten minutes, Dad," Nick pipes up from the back. The roles are reversed. The child is trying to calm the impatient parent.

I turn and look out the window at the people and cars and buildings. I do not want to look at Bill.e His desire is so raw. Whatever else Mass-going does, more often than not it does this: it awakens the hunger for love.

Now we are only five minutes from Ellen and Livy.

John Shea is the author of numerous books, including The Legend of the Bells and Other Stories (ACTA, 1996) and Gospel Light (Crossroad, 1998). This article originally appeared in the February 1998 issue of U.S. Catholic.

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