Tony Kelly, CSsR
TONY KELLY CSsR is Professor of Theology at the Australian Catholic University. He has just completed a book entitled The Eucharistic Imagination, which the present article draws on. He taught theology for a semester in Davao in the late seventies.
As the summit and source of the life of the Church (Flannery 1996: 10), the eucharist affects every aspect of Christian life. Since a concern for ecological integrity is a crucial planetary issue for the new millennium, the question arises: how does the eucharistic imagination of the Church stimulate and nourish an ecological awareness? How might a genuinely eucharistic theology be a fundamental resource for a critical eco-theology?1
In a timely article, Cambridge theologian, Simon Oliver, connects nature and culture within a eucharistic framework (1999: 331-353). Relying on the research of Bruno Latour (1991), he argues that the dualistic distinction between nature and culture typically employed in discussing ecology is beginning to break down, so as to give rise to a fresh kind of ‘hybrid’ thinking. The modern situation arose out of an uneasy collaboration between two entirely separate versions of reality. ‘Nature,’ the domain of ‘objective’ science, dealt with the non-human. ‘Culture,’ the sphere of the ‘subjective’ humanities, dealt with the human. Yet in the background there was an effort of ‘translation’ going on, in order to meet the increasingly complex and unclassifiable situation. This is above all the case in regard to ecological questions. The neat categories of conventional analysis are proving increasingly unstable. Examples that come to mind are the phenomenon of global warming, the human genome project, the epistemology of quantum mechanics, the anthropic principle in cosmology, or such human/natural phenomena as death and even love. More specifically, are genetically modified crops - under the control of multinational agricultural companies- to be regarded as a natural or cultural modification? However that question is answered, we are still left with the further question, what are their complex consequences for both nature and culture?
Furthermore, when the question of God has been bracketed out of both natural and cultural considerations, and when any sense of an integrating philosophical method dwindles into irrelevance, the only unitary horizon is restricted to either a purely natural or a cultural perspective. There is no all-inclusive sense of creation and its creator available. True a ‘spirituality,’ once God is banished from the ontological realm of nature, is a cultural option for the interiorly disposed, to be a kind of self-realisation that requires no ontological or ethic commitment. Extreme positions emerge: human consciousness is increasingly mechanised to exist only in some cyborg like form;2 or, it becomes radically ‘green,’ and so exalts ‘nature’ that the human and the cultural appear disruptive and parasitical.
Such a situation gives rise to a number of questions. What is it that grounds and directs a creative human response to the planetary problems that occur? The vague enlightened liberal individualism that contributed to the situation in the first place seems to have come to the end of its resources. Technology, on the other hand, cannot go beyond a dualistic vision. In either case, if the horizon of thinking excludes the objectivity of values in regard to both nature and culture, then the only response is arbitrary, and eventually totalitarian. Further, if personal identity is either lost in nature through death or dissolved in culture through social conditioning, why bother about the problems that face us?
Hence, our consideration of the ‘saturated phenomenon’ (Jean-Luc Marion) of the eucharist, as it holds the meaning of nature and culture together in relation to the Creator God and the incarnate, crucified and risen Christ. Oliver writes,
...theology enables us to overcome the separation of nature and culture and the division’s current collapse. Rather than resort to the ‘liturgy’ of the experimental laboratory or technological production line, [he seeks] an account of the natural and the cultural as a participation in the supernaturalising event of the Eucharist and the divine culture of the liturgy of the Church. Natural and cultural phenomena will not be seen within a world of mere objects and subjects, but as fundamentally creatures of God who exist and exceed themselves by virtue of their participation in.... divine being. It is within this central Eucharistic act of the Church that phenomena are recast through teleology and that we see the vision of a future salvation [freed?] from the ceaseless mimicry of fallen creation (1991: 331).
The chaotic division now in evidence between an anti-human ecological naturalism and and imperialist technological colonisation of both nature and person admits nothing of the transcendent creativity of God, the divine immanence in the incarnation, and the sacramental realism of the eucharist- which is not only a symbol of transformation, but the ‘real presence’ of Christ. It is no longer a question of mimicking some aspect of the modern chaos, but of participating in the holistic nature of creation, christened, redeemed and oriented to eschatological fulfilment. Creation, as both nature and culture, is re-imagined in conformity to the ultimate life-form incarnate in Christ, there to find unity and direction.
The mystery unfolds: the real presence of the whole Body of Christ is communicated to us through the transformation of the shared “fruit of the earth and the work of human hands.” The bread we offer becomes for us “the bread of life.” The wine we bring becomes “our spiritual drink.” In this way, the eucharist is a celebration of both the holiness and wholeness of creation. Creation appears as holy in that the earthy elements that sustain our lives and communication have such a central place in the eucharistic gift. Unless creation was radically from God, it could not figure so largely God’s relationship to us. Moreover, the eucharist underscores the wholeness of creation. Matter, life and the human spirit are connected in the one God-created cosmos. The fruits of nature and the work of human creativity are integrated in the deeply cosmic sense of how God communicates himself to us in Christ. Nature and history interpenetrate. The produce of the earth is instanced in the wheat and grapes. The productions of human creativity are exemplified in that the grain and grapes are made into bread and wine. The expressiveness of human culture appears in the manner in which such food and drink are used in the convivial communication of our meals and festive celebrations. More radically, the eucharistic meal embodies Christ’s self-gift. In its turn, Christ’s self-giving incarnates the love of the Father himself: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
The eucharist brings together all these gifts and all these forms of giving, to draw us into a universe of grace and giving. From nature’s giving we have the grain and the grapes. From the giving of human work and skill, we have the gifts of bread and wine. From the giving of family and friends flows the gifts of good meals and festive celebrations. From Jesus’ self-giving at the Last Supper, the disciples were given his body and blood, as the food and drink nourishing their union with him. And working in and through all these gifts and modes of giving is the gift of the Father who so loved the world. When the Church celebrates the eucharist, all these gifts come together, with a distinctive from each.
The Fourth Eucharistic Prayer invokes the Father as the luminous source of the universe:
Source of life and goodness, you have created all things that they may abound with every blessing and rejoice in the radiance of your light.3
The prayer, while expressing a sense of all creation as a divine revelation, highlights our human task in relation to the world. Because we are made in God’s image, we realise that image by caring for what God has created:
Father most holy, we proclaim your greatness all your works show forth your wisdom and love. You formed man and woman in your own likeness and entrusted the whole world to their care, so that in serving you alone, their Creator, they might be stewards of all creation.4
In this hope-filled task, faith looks to a final transformation of the universe:
There, together with all creation, set free from the corruption of sin and death, we shall sing your glory, through Christ our Lord, through whom you bless the world with all that is good.5
Today our world is threatened with ecological disintegration. The artificiality of technological culture has uprooted us from nature. We sense that we are not humbly a part of nature, but set violently apart from nature. In this situation, the eucharist is a resource for a more humble and deeply reaching wisdom.
In this regard, the eucharist, as inspiring an appreciation of the whole of creation, is a primary example of ‘Catholic’ imagination, in which kat’holou(‘openness to the whole’) is understood in its full communal and inclusive sense. Such an inclusive imagination envisions a totality in which each part lives in the whole, and in which the whole is present in each part. It brings home to our faith, in the time and space of our existence, that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). It leads toward a ‘holy communion’ excluding nothing and no one of what God has loved into being.
The eucharistic gift of Christ’s body and blood has the effect of restoring our sense of our human selves as creatures of this earth and stewards of God’s good creation. To praise and thank the Creator, is to cherish and care for creation. The most intense moment of communion with God is at the same time an intense moment of our communion with the earth. For “the fruits of the earth and the works of human hands” are not magically vaporised by the action of the Spirit. They come into their own as bearers of the ultimate human mystery. Put most simply, in the idiom of John’s Gospel, the bread and wine become “true food and true drink” (Jn 6:55). ‘Transubstantiated’ in this way, the sacramental elements anticipate the cosmic transformation that is afoot, not as something that leaves the created cosmos behind, but as promising its healing and transformation.
Such a positive vision is one of the important ingredients that Christian faith can offer to ecological awareness. Our day is marked with an increasing appreciation of the diversity of life and with a concern to protect the unique wonder of our biosphere. But something more than a purely rationalist calculation is needed. The ever-renewable resources of faith, hope and love must be involved if there is to be a conservation of the non-renewable resources of our planet. Further, the eucharistic perspective looks beyond a naive ecological ideology with its tendency to regress to an idealized past as an unspoilt and innocent state. On the other hand, doctrinaire evolutionism tends to empty the significance of the present into an impersonal and incalculable future with the result that the past and the present have value only in terms of what it is they are evolving into. Here, too, eucharistic faith provides a more generous framework. It envisions the God-given future actually occurring within our earthly and historical time. Everything is not deferred to a future indifferent to what we now are. Our earth, our flesh and blood, matter. We are not being emptied of what we are. For we are fed with the Bread of Heaven and filled with the energies of the Spirit in the flesh and blood, in the food and drink of our present existence.
The great emancipations of the modern age have had to pay a particularly heavy price. In the struggle against what was perceived as oppressive tradition or archaic order or biological limitation, such forms of liberation have also left so much behind. The modern emancipated individual is uprooted from any sense of nature. Nature meant only limitation and threat. Individual freedom became detached from any sense of a sacred nurturing universe. For that larger, englobing mystery of things was exactly what you could know nothing about. Freedom was not a matter of surrendering to the greater mysterious whole, but of defining oneself against it and apart from it.
The Enlightenment, therefore, had its costs. To the degree human culture was willing to pay up, the range of universal connectedness was lost in the exchange. Mircea Eliade remarks,
As for the Christianity of the industrial societies and especially the Christianity of intellectuals, it has long since lost the cosmic values it still possessed in the Middle Ages. The cosmic liturgy, the mystery of nature's participation in the christological drama, have become inaccessible to Christians living in a modern city... at most we recognize that we are responsible to God and also to history– but the world is no longer felt as the work of God (1959: 179).
When we can no longer feel that the world is the work of God, an extreme alienation results. Nonetheless – and this is what Eliade does not grant - there remain ever-renewable resources of Christian vision and sensibility. These are found typically expressed in the eucharist. In a more ‘enlightened’ Enlightenment, they can be retrieved, but this time in a way that will be less rationalistic and individual, and more attuned to our immersion in nature and to our cosmic connectedness. A cosmic connection was, indeed, part of the deep sensibility of Christian tradition - as any familiarity with the great medieval doctors, St. Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure, clearly shows. But now, with the loss of that sense of connection, the world has been more as a big resource engine to be harnessed and exploited, and its products consumed for our varied versions of individual-fulfilment.
The modern mind, even that of the Christian believer, needs to be re-immersed in the cosmic whole. Neither a return to ancient science nor a rejection of modern achievements are acceptable alternatives. But what is required is a larger and more humble reinterpretation of the traditional declaration of Ash Wednesday, citing Genesis 3:19, “Remember that you are but dust and unto dust you shall return.” Now, however, the character of that dust can be understood as a cosmic reality. We are made of stardust. Our bodies are distillations of the cosmic matter and energies that make up the physical universe over the billions of years of its emergence. We are embodied in a cosmic totality.
We usually apply this hallowed term ‘transubstantiation’ to the manner in which the bread and wine are changed into the Lord’s body and blood. But even here we need a larger cosmic perspective. The mystery of the eucharist is set within a cosmic process of transformation.6 The physical, the chemical, the biological structures of our universe have culminated, through a succession of transformations, in human consciousness. In our minds and hearts the universe has become aware of itself as vast wonderful mystery. Before it, within it, we live and breathe, humbly aware that we are not the centre or origin of all this great happening, and thankful for the sheer gift of our existence, patient and hopeful as it moves us on toward some final outcome.
If the great world of nature has brought us forth, we exist now as spiritual beings in the freedom proper to persons. We are able to think and act, to love and hope and pray. We arise out of nature, but are not contained by it. For now there is an even larger span, the openness, the creativity and the freedom of spirit and soul. We can respond. We possess the freedom to make ourselves, and, within the limits of our humanity, to determine the direction our lives. At the very least, we experience our marvellous, unfinished and restless humanity as a question: Are we to live on the earth, enjoying what it offers and suffering through what it imposes, and so, finally to die, yet spiritually unconscious? Is the question of the origin and goal of all this gift too big or too threatening to ask? For, who, what, is the giver of all these gifts? Are we to take our existence for granted, understanding ourselves, in the end, merely as consumers – on a cosmic scale?
On the other hand, do we owe our existence to Something or Someone, the great creative mystery that has brought us into being? Are we to live on this earth through which we have been given so much, yet having no responsibility to be part of the giving – as life-givers, love-givers, care-givers?
To be in any way disturbed by this kind or question is to find ourselves living in an horizon alive with wonder about our origins, our responsibility and destiny. If universe is creation, what does its creator intend for us? What are we to do with ourselves as the stream of life lifts us up, carries on, and confronts us with the fact that we were not here, nor will be here, forever? The span of human history (two hundred thousand years?) and the eight decades or so of any given life, are only the merest instant in the fifteen thousand million years that have gone into the making of our world. And yet, as been so well said, “We are nature’s big chance to become spirited.”7
For a eucharistic faith, the spiritual scope and shape of humanity is uniquely expressed. It presupposes all the material and biological transformations that peak in the emergence of human consciousness. It carries forward the momentous leap in human history that occurred in Israel’s special covenant with the One God. Then, Mary’s Spirit-inspired “Let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38) embodies the genetic potential of creation. She gives her consent, under the action of the Spirit, to become pregnant with the Christ, the final ‘life-form’ of creation. As the Christmas antiphon sings, “Let the earth be open to bud forth the savior!” This woman of Israel brings forth the Jesus Christ, the Son of God, into life on this planet. His love unto the end on the Cross and the transformation that occurs in his Resurrection draws creation into the field of trinitarian life: “May they be one, as we are one” (Jn 17:22). The longing of the human spirit opens to an horizon filled with the self-giving love of the divine mystery itself. “Nature’s big chance to become spirited” is met with action of God’s own Spirit, forming us and our world into the Body of Christ.
As the Spirit animates our humanity with the life of the Incarnate Word, Christian faith blossoms into its sacramental imagination: symbols, gestures, words, relationships and biological processes of our world come to be appreciated in different sacramental contexts as “visible signs of invisible grace” (Augustine). These reach their most intense and comprehensive form in the eucharist. The risen Lord takes fragments of creation, the elements of our earthly reality which nature and history have combined to produce, to transform them into something more, in anticipation of a new totality: “This is my body; this is my blood...” The Jesus’ transforming identification with the matter of our world is continued through history as the eucharist is celebrated: “Do this in memory of me.” The Lord invites us to connect with the cosmos as he has done. By receiving the eucharistic gift of his body and blood, we are in fact claiming this world as our own in the way that Christ has done. We thus become immeasurably larger selves in a world of divine incarnation. We are not here commending some vague form of pantheism, but recognising the reality of the Incarnation itself as it makes us see the world as the “body of God” (von Balthasar 1988: 679). By assuming our humanity, the divine Word necessarily makes his own the world and universe to which that humanity is essentially related.
Both Greek philosophy and Hebrew faith strongly distinguished between God and the world, between the Creator and creation. The distinctively Christian faith in the incarnation, the Word made flesh, is celebrated in the eucharist. It invites us to bring together what even the deepest philosophy and the greatest faith had hitherto kept apart. The sacrament of the eucharist implies that God is so much God, so infinite and creative in goodness, that the divine presence reaches into the innermost depths of matter, to give the physical world a part in communicating the most divine of gifts. From another point of view, the material world is so much deeply and fully created by God, so possessed and held in being by the Creator, that it is the medium through which the divine mystery reaches out to us. The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. The sacramental imagination of the Church affirms in fact that not only bread and wine, water and oil and human gestures figure in the sacraments, but also our human sexuality – as in the sacrament of marriage. When the eucharist and the other sacraments celebrate the intimacy of God present and working in creation, this is far from being a regression to naively mythological thinking. It is a recognition of the incarnation, inviting us to appreciate how the universe comes into being through the Word and finds its coherence and full reality in him: “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (Jn 1:2-4).
The range of Christian faith is always expanding. The great mystics witness to the indwelling intimacy and extent of God’s presence in the universe.8 In their sense of the utter otherness of God, contemplatives first undergo a purifying withdrawal from the created world. But their detachment is preliminary to openness and surrender. An example of this ‘way of negation’ is John of the Cross’s repeated nada, “nothing, nothing, nothing..., and even on the mountain nothing.”9 It leads to emptiness and silence. Beyond all human conceptions, images and projections, faith experiences a kind of spiritual nakedness before the all-surpassing mystery- God alone. To pray is to enter into this “cloud of unknowing”; it attends to “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kgs 19:12). The believer must be “nakedly intent” on the divine will, and surrendered to it, lost in it alone, beyond the tiny clamour of needs and manipulation.
But then the illumination. In going up the mountain of ascent, we meet the Other coming down into the plains of creation. God is ever creating the world, and ourselves within it, to make us hear his Word more fully and to receive his Spirit more fully. To Philip’s request, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied,” Jesus asks in his turn, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father” (Jn 14:8-9). But even this ‘seeing’ discloses perspectives beyond the scope of human vision and control. There is a play of darkness and light: “...if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:8). In this play of absence (the earthly departure of Jesus) and presence (his return through his gift of the Spirit), we begin to know our place for the first time. Christ’s presence to us is disclosed as truly real – in the concrete earthly reality of the world into which the Word has come in the flesh, and to which the Spirit is sent. Jesus promises, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father will be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask anything, I will do it” (Jn 14:13-14). In Christian prayer, creation awakens to its original mystery. This point has been teased out in the words of a man of faith who is also an outstanding poet as he reflects on Jesus “praying in a certain place” (Lk 11:1):
When Jesus prayed, and taught us to pray, he was doing two things. He was entrusting himself to the Begetter of the universe, and he was giving himself to his brothers and sisters throughout time and space. What we call the “Our Father” or the “Lord’s Prayer” faces at once into all that has ever surrounded and determined the fortunes of the human race, and into the lives of individual men and women. It frames an act of confidence in the goodness of God who made and makes us, it articulates our shared need, and it declares a resolve to be creative on behalf of others. The name of the ‘certain place’ of prayer is, in other words, ‘compassion.’ In that country of the mind and heart, one sees that our universe is not an anonymous indifferent milieu, but the homeland and heartland of God. And at the same time, one sees that God the life-cherisher calls all of us to be life-cherishers and life-givers in concert with him. We ask for food and forgiveness, because we need them both. We agree to offer food and forgiveness, because others need them both. If we mean what we say, prayer will send us back, a little shaken but more than a little heartened, to the tasks of everyday... The country of Compassion can be, and should be, wherever we happen to be (Steele).
The Father’s house is a home of “many dwelling places” (Jn 14:2). Even as we live and breathe in this world, we can still follow Jesus into our particular “dwelling place,” as we pray and open our hearts to God’s goodness revealed in all things. In the depth and breadth of our prayer, we find the universe to be “not an anonymous and indifferent milieu, but the homeland and heartland of God.” Admittedly, our world can appear to be “anonymous and indifferent” as scientists tell of its enormous space and the billions of years that have gone into its making. The disciplined objectivity of science, intent on delineating the structure of the physical universe, speaks in an idiom that can easily make human beings feel that their presence here is purely the result of blind impersonal chance. But the scientific productions of the human mind achieve a strange outcome when they leave no room for the human heart. Science would hardly be a success story if it prevented us from appreciating the wonder of the cosmos as “the homeland and heartland” of God, and of the human spirit. It would be an odd turn in scientific endeavour if it insisted that scientists, human beings like us all, had to define themselves out of the cosmos they so impressively explore. A genuine science can hardly ignore the most obvious and astonishing phenomenon, human consciousness itself. If it gave way to a purely materialistic bias in the name of dispassionate objectivity, if it insisted on ignoring the reality of spirit and its destiny, it would confine us in a world without fundamental meaning and value. The scientific mind might somehow haunt the immense complex universe, but would hardly inhabit it. We would be left with a world without persons.
In contrast, a eucharistic imagination gives a deeper sense of mystery to the impersonal ‘objectivity’ of science. It brings to the scientifically imagined universe a sense of its being divine creation and incarnation. It is a space of communication. God has called us into being. The Father has sent his Son to dwell amongst us. The Holy Spirit makes us aware of the great mystery at work. The Word of God is amongst us in the incarnation. He makes our sufferings his own through the cross. And his resurrection from the dead inspires in us even now the hope of a final universal transformation.
By nourishing us with such mysteries, and bringing them home to our minds and hearts, the eucharist celebrates the universe as a great spiritual breathing space. In that God-filled space, everything and everyone is related. The eucharistic universe does not suffocate the world of values and the blossoming of human consciousness, but is immeasurably hospitable to all that we are. In this regard, the eucharist educates the imagination, mind and heart to apprehend the universe as one of communion and connectedness in Christ. That totality is materialised in the earthly, physical elements of the shared bread and wine of the sacrament, and in the community of believers receiving it, and in Christ giving himself to them as their food and drink. Faith experiences the universe as in a process of being transformed into a new creation.
Through the eucharist, the whole is now offered to be reclaimed as belonging to Christ, and to all who are ‘in Christ.’ In eucharistic imagination, the universe is imagined ‘otherwise.’ Contemplative faith lifts and brings together the superficial, the fragmented, the alienating elements in our experience into another vision. The universe is Christened, seeded with the Spirit-energies of faith, hope and love. It is being transformed ‘transubstantiated’– into the Body of the Risen One (Toolan 1991: 43). To this hopeful vision, the Body of Christ becomes the milieu of our existence, in which nothing is left out, nothing left behind.
Thus, eucharistic faith envisages our existence in the world as an indwelling in shared mystery. It invites us to see our world charged with communication as a great field of relationships to everything and everyone. Though we human beings have been busy through our short history in sundering our relationships to one another, to creation itself and to the God himself, the Divine Word has been writing our collective name in the dust of the earth we share. For ‘in Christ’ – according to the Pauline vision – “all things hold together” (Col 1:17), and are gathered up in him (Eph 1:10). Though the “image of the invisible God,” he is “the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15). All things are made “in him,” and are destined to be “for him” (v. 16). The mystery of Christ is for the universe the all-unifying attractor, the direction inscribed into its origin, the goal drawing it onward, and the force holding it together. All reality – the physical world, all forms of life, the distinctive life of human consciousness, its cultural creations, and its transformation in the Spirit – is embodied in the plenitude of the Risen One. As the heart and center of a transformed creation, he is the life and the light of the world (Jn 1:3-4).
Through the eucharistic imagination, a distinctive ecological vision and commitment takes shape. The literal meaning of eucharistia is ‘thanksgiving.’ In the comprehensive meaning of such thanksgiving, we show gratitude for all the kinds of givings and gifts that nourish our existence. The self-giving love of the Father is the origin: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). Paul begins his letter to the Ephesians with a great eucharistic outpouring:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love... With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will... as a plan for the fullness of time to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph 1:3-10).
In our day we are coming to appreciate how the Father’s original love has worked in an amazing providence. The “one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6) is ever at work for our sake, gathering up all things in Christ, the “things of heaven and things of earth.” Whether our gaze is upward to God, or downward to the earth, we are confronted with so many dimensions of God’s giving. We are indeed ‘up to our necks in debt” (Toolan 1991: 43).
Divine providence has guided the great cosmic processes over billions of years to create the conditions in which planet earth could be a biosphere, a place of life. The same providence has worked through the evolutionary dynamics that have made us what we are – ‘earthlings,’ human beings, co-existing with a million other forms of life in the delicate ecology of this planet. In this continuing chain of giving and receiving, we live not only with, but from and off from one another. Capping the long history of gifts, the creative providence of God’s acting on our behalf has led to the Word of God being present to us in person. The Word becomes flesh and dwells amongst us, to bring healing, forgiveness and abundant life. His cross reaches into the depths of the evil we suffer or cause, to promise reconciliation in an always greater love. His resurrection is our assurance that this long history of creative love will not be defeated. Love and life will have the last word, beyond anything we can imagine. The crowning gift of the Spirit is made to guide us into all truth, as he declares “the things that are to come” (Jn 16:13).
So much has been given to us, that we might exist and live. How, then, do we begin to repay what we owe in a non-inflationary currency? How do we too become a life-giving influence in return? How do we act in this economy of giving and grace?
The eucharistic command of the Lord, “Do this in memory of me,” arises from the imagination of one who gave himself in his whole being for the sake of the many and the all. By entering into the spirit of Jesus’ self-giving, we begin to have a heart for all God’s creation, refusing to leave out of our concerns no aspect of that good creation that the Creator has loved into being. By entering into Christ’s imagination and becoming members of his body, we are in fact putting our souls back into our bodies. For we become re-embodied in him who is related to everything and everyone. In and through him, we co-exist with all creation. We begin to live in a new time-frame determined by the patient, creative goodness of God who is working to draw all things to their fulfilment. We start to have time, beyond the pressures and compulsions of instant demand, to appreciate the wholeness of God’s creation. We begin to own, as truly our own, what we had previously disowned or bypassed – above all, our living solidarity with the world of nature.
The eucharistic imagination thus stimulates new ecological perspectives. Everything has its part in God’s creation. Everything has been owned by the divine Word in the incarnation. Everything is involved in the great transformation already begun in his resurrection. We are bound together in a giving universe, at the heart of which is the self-giving love of God: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it is just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). We are living and dying into an ever larger selfhood to be realized in a network of relationships pervading the whole of the universe and reaching even into the trinitarian relationships that constitute the very being of God.
The eucharist, then, inspires us to welcome the great, generative reality of the cosmos and the ecological reality of our planetary biosphere with a more generous hospitality. Both belong to a larger spiritual space. For all this has its place in “the Father’s house of many dwelling places” (cf. Jn 14:2).
To obey Jesus’ command, “Do this in memory of me,” implies, then, a re-membering of all that has been dismembered in the sterile imagination of our culture. The eucharistic forms of faith, hope and love do not allow either our universe or even our planet to be left behind. Spiritual progress is not a spiritual escape from what we are, but a generous reclamation of the physical world so that it is neither forgotten nor abandoned to absurdity, despair or defeat. We cannot set nature aside, for it is our own flesh and blood. Loving our neighbour means loving the whole cosmic and planetary neighborhood in which we exist. In the measure we taste and celebrate the charged eucharistic reality of Christ’s presence to us, the Christian imagination expands to its fullest dimensions. Paul’s prayer begins to be answered:
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph 3:18-19).
The time and space of our earthly existence are filled with the energies of true life. Here and now, we are enabled not only to be jubilant participants in the feast but also, through all the giving and service that life and love demand, we are destined to be part of the meal. We are called on to contribute the energies of our lives to the great banquet of the new creation. With Jesus, we fall as grains of wheat into the holy ground to die, in order not to remain alone (Jn 12:24). The planetary consequences of such a eucharistic vision have been beautifully expressed by a modern contemplative writer. In her ecological vision, she appreciates
the Earth as the Eucharistic Planet, a Good Gift planet, which is structured in mutual feeding, as intimate self-sharing. It is a great Process, a circulation of living energies, in which the Real Presence of the Absolute is discerned (Bruteau 1990: 501).
From one point of view, eucharistic imagination envisions the world ‘otherwise’ because it grasps it truly. The sacrament of Christ’s body and blood nourishes our minds and hearts into such a sense of wholeness. It cures our imagination from the egotistical illness, to offer it the healing sickness of a more generous belonging to all. The need for this salubrious nourishment is expressed in the words of Einstein:
A human being is part of the whole, called by us the ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty (Nagler 1982: 11).
The relational existence that Christ nourishes promises a sense of reality at odds with any self-enclosed individualistic vision. In expressing through the eucharist his relationship to us and our world, Jesus is acting out of his own sense of reality as field of communion and mutual indwelling. He prays, “... that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I in you, may they also be in us... I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one” (Jn 17:21-22). Our unity in God derives from the way the Father and the Son are united in the one divine life: the divine persons are not independent entities somehow managing to come together. Divine life is an eternal flow of one into the other, in relationships of mutual self-giving: “Instead of taking as the norm of Reality those things which are outside one another, he [Jesus] takes as a standard and paradigm those who are in one another” (Bruteau 1990: 502). Here, we are challenged to imagine our inter-relationships in terms of mutual indwelling modelled on the union existing between the Father and the Son. We nourish the other into being. And the life-giving nourishment we give is not less than the gift of ourselves. We are ‘in’ one another for the life of the other. By being from the other, for the other, and so, in the other, our earthly-human lives participate in God’s own trinitarian love-life.
The eucharistic imagination inspires a deep ecological sensibility. Our ways of relating to everyone and everything in God’s creation occur within a graced field of shared life and communion. The first movement of Christian existence is to give thanks (eucharistia) for the wonder of the love that has called us to be part of a commonwealth of life. Such ‘thanking’ deeply conditions the ‘thinking’ necessary to address the urgent ecological problems of our day. Obviously influenced by eucharistic symbolism, a noted ecologist writes,
To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skilfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily and destructively, it is desecration. In such a desecration, we condemn ourselves to spiritual, moral loneliness, and others to want (Berry 1981: 281).
Though we have no intention of reducing the eucharistic celebration of the mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection to ecological concerns, still, the eucharist does affect such concerns. It sustains the vision and the hope necessary to address the urgent problems confronting the human race at the beginning of this new millennium. A conscience formed by the eucharist works against the powerful cultural tendencies to desecrate God’s good creation. The sense of universal communion it inspires works against the spiritual and moral loneliness that threaten our culture. The heartlessness, that shuts out the poor and the needy from the great house of life, and proves incapable of valuing anything except in terms of immediate usefulness and economic reward, is exposed to a redeeming influence. In all parts of the planet, in the daily round of millions of lives, the eucharist is celebrated. The communities concerned awake each day to a corporate rededication of themselves, not only to sharing the bread of life with the hungry, not only to compassionate involvement on behalf of the suffering, but also to a commitment to the ecological well-being of the planet itself. Through this sacrament, faith can come to see the earth as a living sacrament of God’s loving presence.
Through its eucharistic imagination, the Church can be an inspirational force for those who have come to appreciate planet-earth as Gaia, a wondrous, varied, delicate living system. Christians are representatives of
... humanity becoming more fully integrated with the being of Gaia, more fully at one with the presence of God. It is a deepening into the sacramental nature of everyday life, an awakening of consciousness that can celebrate divinity within the ordinary, and, in this celebration, bring to life a sacred civilization (Spangler 1986: 81).
Christian faith moves through time, but always walks on holy ground. The challenge to bring to life a ‘sacred civilisation’ is being felt today with special urgency.
Some might feel that religious symbolism is one thing, while the conflicts and strategies of practical ecological concerns are quite another. I can only suggest that the movement toward a richer and more inclusive life begins with a new way of imagining the world. Great symbols orientate us within the wholeness of things, and give both the passion and patience to grapple with it. Here, I have offered a reflection on the eucharist as a primary symbol within the life of Christian faith. It is an essential expression of the poetry of such faith, unfolding as it does in a universe of grace. The eucharistic imagination radically re-shapes our experience, to make the unseen and unspoken glow with significance, even if the struggle to have words for such matters remains.
As the source and goal of the whole life of the Church, the eucharist relates us to Christ, connects us with one another, and re-embodies us within the life of planet Earth. This sacrament is celebrated within a field of transcendent, communal, planetary and cosmic belonging. Our universe is being drawn into the trinitarian life, toward that ultimate point at which “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).
1981 The Gift of Good Land. San Francisco: North Point Press.
1990 “Eucharistic Ecology and Ecological Spirituality.” Cross Currents, Winter.
1959 The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
Flannery, Austin O.P. (ed.)
1996 “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” in Vatican Council II: Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents. Northport, NY: Costello.
1991 Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books.
1993 An Expanding Theology: Faith in a World of Connections. Sydney: E.J. Dwyer.
1991 We Have Never Been Modern. trans. Catherine Porter. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
1976 The Risen Christ and the Eucharist World. trans. René Hague. New York: Crossroad.
1982 America Without Violence. Covelo, CA: Island Press.
1999 “The Eucharist Before Nature and Culture.” Modern Theology 15/3, July.
1986 Emergence: The Rebirth of the Sacred. New York: Dell.
Steele, S.J., Peter
“Praying in a Certain Place,” unpublished, quoted with permission.
Toolan, S.J., David S.
1991 “Nature is a Heraclitean Fire: Reflections on Cosmology in an Ecological Age.” Studies in the Spirituality of the Jesuits. 23/5, November.
von Balthasar, Hans Urs
1988 The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. I: Seeing the Form. trans. E. Leiva-Merikakis. eds. J. Fessio and J. Riches. Edinburgh: T.& T Clark.