Saturday, January 28, 2006

Mystic Sweet Communion - A Review of "An Experience of Spirit"

“The artist’s response to art is often more art. When we hear the passion of Jesus Christ, the thinker in us may puzzle over God’s seeming passivity in the face of evil. The artist in us may compose a poem on suffering, tell a story of courage, sing a song of sorrow, paint a picture of death. These responses, and many more, are within us all. But the qualities and possibilities of the responses differ.”

John Shea – “An Experience of Spirit (Spirituality and Storytelling)”

For the past month or so I’ve been making my way slowly through “An Experience of Spirit,” John Shea’s literary exploration of “How contemporary life stories interact with inherited stories, and how hearing of inherited stories uncovers the depth of present experience and funds the future.”

When I was first asked by Philip Del Ricci to read and review the book I thought the task before me was to dissect what Shea had written. Were the stories compelling? Was the book’s message clear? There was a part of me that wanted to move quickly through the poetic narrative. But thankfully I resisted the urge. After reading the first two chapters I saw that this was a book that needed a pilgrim, not a critic, to open its riches.

At times in the telling of the story Shea acts as a teacher, explaining succinctly, for example, how Evangelical and Roman Catholic Christians have become disconnected:

“The most prized creations of the Christian tradition are its core myth and ritual. The core myth is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ which is embodied in the four gospels; the core ritual is the Eucharistic eating and drinking together that he initiated.”

“In the course of Christian history, this myth and ritual was elaborated into six other rituals with readings from the core myth and other books of Scripture. This became known as Word and Sacrament and formed the center of the Christian tradition. The Protestant reformation is often analyzed, in hindsight, as the “effective but not total” separation of Word and Sacrament. Generally speaking, the Protestants took the book and the Catholics took the sacraments. The result is that both groups were impoverished.” (Page 42)

I suspect that some Evangelicals might object to his use of the term “myth,” but the objections would be misplaced. Shea is speaking of “myth” as the accepted history of the Christian faith. What Evangelicals call “kerygma,” Shea calls “myth.” The use of the term isn’t used to suggest that the gospel narratives and the Christian belief about Jesus are untrue. Rather, the term is used to describe the acceptance Christians have always attached to the gospel accounts.

Shea is at his most beautiful and powerful when he takes the pilgrim (a reader like me) on the journey with him. In describing the sacramental outworking of the Christian story, for example, I found myself caught up in the wonder of it all:

“When people participate in them with receptivity and openness, they can move through the words, gestures, and objects into the reality of God. This myth and ritual was generated by the experience of God and is capable of communicating that experience. This capacity to put the participant into the living relationship to God that was revealed in Jesus Christ is signified by calling the myth the Word of God and the ritual elements the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” (Page 43)

The implications of the experience are profound. Shea describes them this way:

“The core myth and ritual of Christianity reflects the artistic dimension of the human person. For our purposes, the artist in each person appropriates reality by feeling its fullness.” (Page 45)

One of Shea’s important lessons for Evangelicals like me is that there is a great mystery passed from generation to generation through the practice of rituals like Communion (Eucharist). I’ve felt for some time that one of the things missing in my life was the ability to connect, to have communion with God in the same way my Roman Catholic brethren are through the Eucharist. I’ve believed since my days in seminary that taking the Communion elements is more than just a symbol. There’s something far more powerful to it all. There is, or should be, more than just a symbolic transaction that takes place when a Christian partakes of the communion elements. He or she should connect deeply with the Christ of the elements, feel God’s cleansing power through them, and come from the experience viewing God, themselves, and their fellows in the light of that experience. Then, something wonderful follows. What we’ve been given, we want to communicate to others:

Feeling responses to divine-human interaction are usually initially expressed in imaginative forms. Imaginative forms – poetry, story, art, music – are capable of a fullness of expression, of bringing the totality of what was experienced to light. They are also capable of triggering felling-responses in others.” (Page 45)

The end result is that what we’ve come to experience, and then know through the ritual finds a way into our hearts. From there it works its way out in creative expression. Mediation, repentance, prayer, and praise wind their way though us and find avenues of expression. It may be in the form of a simple conversation. It may be in the form of a poem or a song. It may come in the form of a story told. In doing so, it’s not a way of making the mysterious concrete. It is, rather, a way of making the mysterious real. In the same manner that the Word became flesh in Jesus, it becomes flesh in us.

The simplicity and power of the experience can be seen clearly in the way John Shea tells the story of what he’s experienced, how the Word has become flesh in him. His re-telling of the story of the prodigal son is evidence of that power:

“On the hill beside his home the Father waits. He has been there before. He sees his son coming from a distance and lifting his robes above the knees he runs to greet him. The servants who are in the field watch the old man running past them, his breath short, his eyes never wavering. By the time the younger son seems him, the father is on top of him. He embraces his son and weeps down his neck.
“Oh Father,” said the son, his arms never leaving his side.
“Bring the robe,” said the Father. The servants had gathered around.
“I have sinned.”
“Bring the ring.”
“Against heaven.”
“Bring the sandals.”
“And against thee.”
“Kill the fatted calf.”
“Do not take me back.”
“Call the musicians.”
“As a son.”
“My SON,” and these words the father whispered into his ear, “was dead and has come back to life.”
“But as a hired hand.”
“My SON was lost and is now found.”

The party had not choice but to begin.” (Page 109)

One of the complaints I’ve heard about liturgy and ritual is that it is wooden, that it has no life in it. John Shea’s experience and transmission of his story dispels that notion. Something very real has passed on to him in his life. It’s evident in his telling of the story.

I’ll close with three things. First, I recommend John Shea’s work highly to you. You can find his work, and others like it, at Liguori Publications’ website. Just use the hyperlink to the site provided above. Second, take a moment or two to visit Philip Del Ricci’s blog, titled “Through a Dark Glass.” You’ll find the visit well worth your time. As Philip says in his byline, “I hope that my perspective as a non-Catholic will be of interest to a few people. From time to time, my thoughts may scandalize but I hope that they seldom bore.” And third, for my fellow Evangelicals reading this blog, I recommend that you explore the mystery of your faith in Jesus. What you’ve been given through the gospels and, yes, even the traditions passed down through the ages is indeed the “pearl of great price.” Through these elements, and more, you’ve been given the gift of being able to connect with God, yourself, your brothers and sisters, and those who’ve gone before you. It is, as one of your fellow pilgrims has termed it “mystic sweet communion:”

“Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won,
With all her sons and daughters
Who by the Master’s hand
Led through the deathly waters,
Repose in Eden land.”
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KosmicEggburst said...

Communion is where it is at. As you pointed out, the rite is absent and should be re-invigorated because it is good and right to do so. Calvin referred to the communion elements as the Word liquid, and the Word in the bread. As baptism is the membership rite, communion is the rite of said member, and the week was made for man.

Douglas said...

This would be a good place for some Technorati post tags, such as "John Shea," etc.

Philip Del Ricci said...


Thank you again for this review. I made it the focus of today's post. Hopefully some of my readers will drop by to check it out.

An Experience of Spirit - Book Review

P. Del Ricci - Dark Glass

Gone Away said...

Reading this, I was reminded of one experience of the Spirit that Catholics and some Evangelicals never have - that of full immersion baptism. It happens once in a lifetime yet is so profound that it stays with the believer forever. To read John Shea's explanation of the experience of Communion was to be reminded powerfully of my own baptism. Perhaps it is true that no denomination has all the truth.

Kiwi Nomad 2006 said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and beautiful post.