Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Somewhere along the line—maybe middle school—I learned something about the words transubstantiation and consubstantiation, maybe the biggest words I knew back then, other than supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I remember those words because I remember the concept--well, sort of. One of the words described the Roman Catholic view of the Lord’s Supper, another Lutheran, and yet another word, one I’ve forgotten was ours, the Reformed view of the sacrament.

That I know the words means I found the whole discussion quite interesting some time way back when. What I’m saying is I was familiar with the arguments in a classroom sense, but I really didn’t understand them or own them until I met Kevin Conroy, high school principal at Black Hawk High School, where I spent my first two years as a teacher, forty years ago.

Kevin Conroy had a thick Brooklyn accent, having grown up in “New Yawk,” grown up devout Irish Catholic, emphasis on devout. I don’t know that other teachers knew him back then as I did, but he was my first boss and I was totally single, living like a monk in abject devotion to school, and often—it’s true—painfully lonely. All those things he seemed to understand.

Mr. Conroy and I shared something rich and, for me at least, bountiful. We were both serious believers—he was more devout, but we were both serious. I didn’t go to church much back then, but the Calvinism in my system didn’t dissipate. So the two of us would talk--about faith, about religion, about God.

One after-school afternoon, we talked about communion, an event he called “the Eucharist.” It may well have been the first time in my life when I put to use the old classroom terminology, the first time I learned something real about communion, not as a concept but as a significant life event.

“Jim,” he told me, every bit of his Irish soul flaring in intensity, “when I take the host into my mouth, it is no symbol—it is Jesus Christ.”

He wasn’t creating an argument; what he said had the heartfelt abundance of raw and real testimony, witnessing, in the very best sense of that word. Somehow, my soul’s memory found a place for that moment, and I never forgot it. In an abstract sense, that day he made a convert of this Calvinist.

Kevin Conroy gave me the means by which to understand how it was that Mother Teresa, who for so many years had to slug through the midnight of spiritual despondency, simply could not and would not miss Holy Communion, even though Jesus, indeed God almighty, had seemingly left her out in the cold. Even when she claimed He’d forgotten her, she held stubbornly to the faith that animated Kevin Conroy’s own testimony—because she believed, heart and soul, that when she participated in the Eucharist, she was eating God’s own precious body and blood.

“This is my body,” Christ said. To Kevin Conroy and Mother Teresa and millions of other Roman Catholics, it is. It’s just that simple.

Eugene Peterson once told me that he doesn’t bother explaining that the bread and wine are merely symbols because he knows the institution of the Lord Supper is vastly richer when we don’t consider what we’re doing something akin to shadow boxing. At a certain level, insisting on the character of Reformation theology only cheapens the sacrament. Thanks, in great part, to my old school principal, I couldn’t agree more.

“Her adoring attitude,” a senior sister once wrote of Mother Teresa, “gestures such as genuflections—even on both knees, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, and that well into old age—her postures such as kneeling and joining hands, her preference for receiving Holy Communion on the tongue all bespoke her faith in the Eucharist.”

I don’t doubt for a moment that some of us Protestants would demur from that assessment, or the theology underlying it. But Kevin Conroy taught me long ago that “her faith in the Eucharist” really means her faith in Jesus Christ.

The image of her there, taking Christ, even in her own travail, on her knees, penitent, receiving the host, is as beautiful a portrait as this Calvinist can imagine.


Anonymous said...

Was a priest was required to be present in the Biblical Church for a believer to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit (Third Person of the Christian Trinity) as recorded in Acts 2? When was the last time you experienced a sermon based upon Acts 2?

Seriously Though said...

I have been pondering the Eucharist ever since I read St. Francis' writings.