Friday, August 31, 2018

A Reading List for a Eucharistic Life

Last June, I had the distinct privilege of sharing my testimony at a Notre Dame symposium put on by the McGrath Institute for Church Life’s Center for Liturgy. The symposium’s overall theme was “The Eucharistic Life,” and at week’s end I had the chance to relate my own spiritual story according to a Eucharistic vision. I was grateful to Dr. Tim O’Malley for the invitation, to his staff who helped me with the many details, and to the symposium participants who listened attentively to my remarks – not to mention my ums and ahs, my rambling digressions and my sobs. I don’t often get the chance to talk so freely in public about my faith history and conversion to Catholicism – my favorite, my most favorite tale to tell – and I relished the opportunity to do so at such a receptive gathering.

Then, a week or so ago, I received a follow-up email from Carolyn, the Center for Liturgy’s Program Director. “We are assembling a list of resources for our participants,” she wrote, “so if you could, send along your top 3 recommendations for indispensable books/articles that have meant a great deal to you in your study and formation that you feel our participants should know about and read.” Thankfully, mercifully, Carolyn tacked on this addendum: “Feel free to send more than 3 if you like.”

It was like an unexpected, delayed bonus on top of the honor of actually sharing at the event. As a frequent bookstore habitué (and former bookstore clerk), recommending books is second only to actually reading them in my way of seeing things, so Carolyn didn’t have to prod me for a response – especially since she lifted the numerical restriction.

“I've been mulling over your request quite a bit,” I wrote back after a couple days. “Here's the list I came up with.” I’ve cut-and-pasted the list below, and I’ve included some brief annotations [in brackets] as to why I think each item is relevant to a Eucharistic way of life.
  1. Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (1952) and, her follow-up companion volume, Loaves and Fishes (1963).
    [As I’ve noted elsewhere, I didn’t become a Catholic because of Servant of God Dorothy Day, but I don’t think I would’ve become a Catholic without her. It’s also true that her love of the Mass and the Eucharist, and how she very intentionally allowed the Eucharist to thoroughly permeate everything she thought and did and attempted, was a powerful witness. Even before I joined the Church, she was my hero bar none. After I joined the Church, she was my mentor through her writing. I still want to be like her when I grow up.]
  2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949).
    [Although my brother tried to get me to read LOTR and The Hobbit back in the 1970s when they were hot off the press, I couldn’t be bothered (!). After becoming a Catholic, I finally got around to Tolkien’s astounding epic, and it was like a spiritual epiphany. It's like a roadmap of the spiritual life, and a sacramental sensibility hovers over the entire corpus. Dr. O’Malley's recent piece for OSV on Tolkien’s elvish waybread as an image of Eucharistic sustenance captures what I'm getting at superbly.]
  3. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940).
    [I was in Chicago living in an urban studies center on the South Side, and just piecing together the whole mystique of Catholic Worker-ism and Catholicism when I stumbled across this novel about a delinquent priest ministering to a persecuted Mexican Church in the 1930s. It clicked, and Greene's gripping narrative about the lengths people will go to – the lengths they in fact actually went to – to receive the Eucharist permanently framed my sacramental identity.]
  4. Myles Connolly, Mr. Blue (1928) – especially Mr. Blue's movie pitch in the middle.
    [That "elevator pitch" about halfway into this short novel is almost like a mini-novelette unto itself. It, too, is a powerful picture of the centrality of the Eucharist to the Christian project, not only for the sanctification of individual believers, but for the salvation of the whole world.]
  5. Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959).
    [This monastic sci-fi masterpiece is hard to describe, and it's even harder to put into words why it's so unsettling and alluring. At the heart of it is a continuity of ancient tradition and community that revolves around liturgy and prayer, and so, like Dorothy's autobiographical writings, I think Canticle modeled for me an all-encompassing Eucharistic worldview that I couldn't resist.]
  6. C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) – particularly the beginning about the children falling into the painting.
  7. [I zoomed through Lewis's Narnia Chronicles when I was a 7th-grader, and I've come back to them periodically – and not just to read them to my own kids, but for my own pleasure and edification. Dawn Treader in particular has stood out in my memory over the years for its thread of adventurous journeying that has its genesis in a metaphysical accident. A group of children are gazing at a painting of a ship at sea, and the painting comes alive – and the children clumsily tumble down beyond the picture frame and into the painted scene. As an Evangelical, I came to interpret this imagery in terms of Christians inhabiting the Biblical literature. As a Catholic, I've come to further embrace that opening sequence as a potent metaphor for how we can be drawn into and come to inhabit the liturgy itself. In other words, the real adventure of Christianity is at the altar, the fount, and the kneeler. When we inhabit a sacramental universe, then anything can happen.]
Plus, three movies – all of which were books first (or at least a play in the case of Wit), but I like the movie adaptations a lot:
  1. Babette's Feast (1987)
    [This quiet, unassuming film is based on a short story by Isak Dinesen. On the surface, it's a romantic tale of serendipity, sacrifice, and love. Look deeper, and you'll see Christ and his Church, kenosis and metanoia, and a profound ecclesial longing for heaven. Moreover, you'll see a Eucharistic feast like no other.]
  2. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
    [Maybe this is a stretch, but this fantasy film (based on Michael Ende's novel) fleshes out what Lewis was getting at in those first pages of Dawn Treader. The movie's hero, Bastian, is alienated and lonely and put upon at school, and he finds solace and escape in a beguiling storybook that increasingly occupies his consciousness. In time, Bastian is swept up into the story he is reading, and he takes on a critical role in the unfolding plot. "Real" world and the world of the page fuse for Bastian, and what had been an entertaining diversion soon swamps all other temporal concerns. Again, it's an image of inhabiting that I associated with a life centered on liturgy and sacrament.]
  3. Wit (2001)
  4. [I've been showing this HBO production of Margaret Edson's play to my nursing students for eons. Emma Thompson is superb in the role of Vivian Bearing, an English scholar who is dying of cancer. To me, its frequent biblical, hagiographic, liturgical, and sacramental allusions are palpable and illuminating. Every time I screen it for my students, I see something new – every time, really! It's a remarkable play, and this film version is astonishing. And the Eucharistic epiphany – a moment of breathtaking nuance and grace – is unforgettable.]
Come to think of it, I recall that Disney's version of Beauty and the Beast – the animated one from 1991, not the live action one from last year – had some powerful Eucharistic undertones. [Selfless love, transformative grace, death into life, and more.] Oh, and Diary of a Country Priest (1936) by Georges Bernanos is highly recommended, as is the old film version from 1954. [Both convey that same idea I found so compelling in Dorothy Day and Miller's Canticle: That a Eucharistic life is one that is shot full of Christ, and there's no out of the way corner or nook of our experience that escapes his expansive, crucified presence. "Does it matter?" the protagonist confesses at the very end. "Grace is everywhere...."]

Dom Hubert van Zeller is uniformly wonderful. Anything by him is recommended. [It's true. I've never encountered anything by Van Zeller that I didn't find captivating, instructive, and beneficial. And, as a Benedictine, even when he's not writing about the liturgy and the Eucharist explicitly, he seems to lean on their ubiquity, always in the ether informing and pervading everything else. That's my goal, too. I'm working on it.]