“Look Around You!”
A Review of
The Sacred Meal
(Ancient Practices Series).
By Nora Gallagher.
Reviewed by Ragan Sutterfield.
The Sacred Meal
(Ancient Practices Series).
Hardback: Thomas Nelson, 2009.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
“Instead of thinking of that Communion as a ghoulish eating of human flesh, think of those who gather at Communion as the body of Jesus…This is my body, he said. Look around you.” Looking around is exactly what Nora Gallagher does as she explores the ancient practice of Communion in her new book The Sacred Meal. This book is one of the latest releases in the “Ancient Practices” Series edited by Phyllis Tickle, and like the other books in the series its aim is to ask us to remember, renew and recollect the essential practices of the Church such as prayer, fasting, and Sabbath-keeping. Communion as a subject however has challenges that go beyond most ancient practices. Communion, as we have seen over the history of Christianity, is a source of great division, a means of exclusion as much as embrace. Nora Gallagher certainly had her work cut out for her in approaching this subject, but she answers the call beautifully.
Rather than centering on all of the ins and outs of the “real presence,” transubstantiation and consubstantiation, Gallagher focuses on her story as it connects with Communion because, as she says in the introduction, it “is the only story I can truthfully tell.” By reflecting on her own story Gallagher opens up the experience of Communion in all of its complexity, banality, and surprise.
Gallagher’s experience of Communion takes shape around its three stages: waiting, receiving, and afterward. In waiting, Gallagher explores the experience of preparing ourselves for Communion. It is a time of reflecting on what separates us from God and others before we experience a taste of heaven and true togetherness. In waiting for Communion Gallagher suggests that we let go of our baggage. “The baggage I carry to the Communion line is not filled with clothing and shoes but instead the things stuffed into my head: worry, guilt, anxiety, way too many rationalizations,” she writes. Before we eat the Sacred Meal we must let go, confess our sins, and receive the free gift of God.
The next stage is the experience of actually receiving Communion. I have a priest friend who tells me that he finds it often telling how people receive Communion. Some people, he tells me, just cannot accept the bread placed in their hand—they have to take it out of his hand. Gallagher shares similar experiences from her work as a Lay Eucharistic Minister (someone who passes the cup to Communion recipients). Sometimes it seems we just have a hard time receiving God’s gifts and that certainly shows up in Communion. Gallagher writes, “By making our greatest and most important goal the one of productivity, we miss out on the ways that God’s gifts of grace come to us by doing nothing.” At the Communion table we do nothing, we kneel or sit and are fed.
And after being fed there comes the time that Gallagher calls “Afterward.” This is the time after we have received and acknowledged God’s gifts and offered our thanksgiving for his abundance (Eucharist in Greek is “thanksgiving”). Once we have received the gift of Communion out of God’s gifts it is time to go out into the world and spread the grace that we have received. In Communion we encounter the divine and in this encounter we experience transformation. As Gallagher writes, “Transformation occurs in encounters, sometimes better named collisions, either with the self or with others or with the holy.” The afterward of Communion is a time when we take this transformation and let it spill out into our lives and communities.
Gallagher goes on to explore the other aspects of Communion—its history and magic, the beautifully transformative effects of a meal. Throughout she does this through a full engagement with story, her own and others. We learn about Eucharist through the beautiful film Babette’s Feast and we learn what true communion means through the experience of a soup kitchen. And as we listen to the stories we become a part of them, just as we become a part of God’s story of salvation in the world.
The Sacred Meal is not heavy, it is a light brunch full of flavor—leaving us satisfied but also wanting more. Not more from the book itself, it is satisfying enough, but wanting what the book points to. Reading this book makes my mouth water in anticipation for the feast of Sunday.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com