Almost immediately after I unpacked my boxes for a sabbatical at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley this past January, I found myself returning to certain favorite places that had been important to me during the time of my doctoral work in the 1990’s. As a creature of ritual, with an interest in that topic that extends far beyond my scholarly concern with liturgical studies, I was particularly drawn to the running trails in the Berkeley hills, which I had shared with partners every Saturday morning for much of my earlier stay. What I never expected to encounter was a sense of communion: a complex, real presence that ran along with me as I rediscovered oak and cedar woods that had once been as familiar to me as the back of my hand and whose dense pleasures I could never have adequately captured back in Seattle simply by isolated memory. These paths resonate with memories of loved ones—fellow religious and close friends—and the stories we shared of love and hope, pain and shame, faith and deep doubt as we struggled up those steep, muddy canyon roads just a few miles from our crowded Berkeley neighborhood. The memories embrace much more than the content of the stories we shared. They involve the relationality and intense bonding of people who loved one another, trusted one another enough to risk a vulnerable revelation and were crazy enough in graduate studies to go to bed early on Friday night so they could meet faithfully, rain or shine, at 8:30 on a Saturday morning.
Eucharistic memory operates in the same multivalent way. It employs four modes of presence that cannot be isolated if we are to be true to the rhythm and harmony of God’s faithful promise in Christ. From this perspective, bread and wine are considered as food “taken, blessed, broken and shared”; the word is preached and proclaimed with the same dynamism; the assembly praying and singing undergoes a consecratory transformation much like that of the word and elements; and the presider who gathers the community into communion first surrenders any claim of individual control or personal power, just as Christ identifies himself with the body in the communal self-offering that occurs at the table. Together they body forth Christ’s saving deeds in the liturgy, as the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” declared over 40 years ago. This complex of divine relationship with us in mystery makes present the enduring promise of redemption and liberation in this time and place. One sacramental theologian, David Power O.M.I., describes this eventful character of our worship as follows in his book, Sacrament: The Language of God’s Giving (1999): “To keep memorial is to relate the present, which is characteristically in flux, to the past and to the future. The past does not repeat itself, but it has left its traces and testimony, and thus transmits its power to change history and lives by a pattern of action that emerges from it.”
Liturgical memory and practice cradle our immediate reality and invite its transformation and consecration, and—out of the context of our faithful gathering—orient the future hopes and dreams of a waiting world. Any sacramental claims we make today about the real presence of Christ in the liturgy must embrace this relational, dialogical and participative shape, which springs from God’s unquenchable desire to be in relationship with us, in and with Christ, through the indwelling grace of the Holy Spirit.
Sabbaticals make one think about one’s work in a new way and in very different circumstances from the familiar office and classroom of ordinary time. My scholarly interest in the issues of real presence and liturgical memory followed me on my runs in favorite places. On one such memorial run, in a regional wilderness area very close to my Jesuit community house, I had trouble finding the trailhead for a route that had been a favorite of my partners and me every Saturday morning for five years. Memories immediately began to surface as I searched to find this exact place of past encounters. The steepness of the trail had frightened me every week years ago, and now I was eight years older. I remembered John, a Holy Cross religious, and Giselle, a former Jesuit Volunteer, as well as Mike and Otter, two Jesuit scholastics, all of whom goaded me out of bed in a weekly ritual of survival and the thrill of athletic achievement. Some of us once shared a case of poison oak on our legs, because we had been intentionally jumping into puddles on that very trail. We wanted to have battle scars of mud to show the regulars when we made the ritual visit to Peet’s Coffee on our way home. This complex of experiences was part of a shared identity, and the wounds of faithful practice were part of the witness. This is the memory-laden trail that I finally discovered again on that January morning in 2003.
As I stretched on the wooden fence where we had prepared so many times before and then started up the winding, rutted path, I soon discovered I was accompanied in this solitude and beauty. My faithful companions and our shared experiences in this place of ritual came alive in a fresh way. I felt loved and sustained and very grateful—a slowly emerging sense of being held. This sense showed its contours gradually, just like the gathering of sweat as the limbs and muscles and arteries began to labor mightily together. That gratitude came in the form of the fragrance of eucalyptus and the unique sound its leaves make in the slightest wind. I heard it in the staccato clicking sound made by the Anna’s butterfly, natural to this area, searching for nectar in the vegetation. I reached a certain turn and a steep section, and I remembered how we always used to say at this precise spot, “Tell a story!” to make the next few minutes of ascent a little easier.
My friends were present to me, not simply in past events or as individualized, static personalities. Even more, I longed to celebrate communion with them again. I was grateful for the gifts they are in my life now, and was determined that the connections be refreshed and renewed. I can say, these few weeks later, that they have been. The trail, like the host and the cup, provides an arena of encounter and uncovers layers of real presence.
As the run unfolded, stories of courage and struggle seemed to be associated with certain parts of the varied terrain. I remembered loves lost, fears about ordination revealed and exciting plans for kayaking, hiking and conquering the academic world, all spun into a vision of the future. At one point, the woods yielded up the memory of a huge owl that once flapped majestically across the clearing of the trail when I was running here alone, and I had voiced out loud in my awe, “Praise God!” The run was becoming a strange mixture of past deed and present concern, revealing to me something about the future, the ambiguity of which so often dampens my spirit. That is what faithful practice in community does, and it crosses over into the participants’ private devotion and prayer. That particular day, I stopped in the middle of a descent that looks out over a ravine where oaks and reeds vibrate with holiness, and I made a gesture of raised hands in a circular motion—part stretch and full of grateful praise. And I bowed in deep happiness.
All life, all holiness comes from you through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit. From age to age you gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun even to its setting, a pure offering may be made to the glory of your name.
A connectedness and wholeness shaped by memory—that is perhaps the greatest gift of these runs for me. I have been writing a lot this year about the Trinity as the relational community of God and source of our way of praying. The image of God the Father, a difficult one in these inclusive days, has been predominant over the past few weeks. The fruitful, generative Parent seemed to be lying in wait on these runs that melded what I had been thinking about (mind), how the run was cleansing and challenging me at the moment and revealing the gift of health (body), and what I was feeling about simply everything (spirit). Running, like the liturgy, gathers “all life, all holiness” into a significant whole.
A spiritual director chided me recently that I have been working too hard to find God, set the scene and discern God’s presence in the hard work of writing in the midst of many expectations. “Why not let God come to you?” she said. “Let the Father come. He’s near to you, and you are not paying enough attention to him. Listen to what God is saying to you here.” The runs allow that to happen in a way that sitting to pray amid a pile of books and journals cannot. Simply being found, smelling the beauty of it all, remembering the lives of those whose connection is an effective sign of all companionship that sustains my life and vocation evoke a holy presence. Christ, “the Book of Life in whom we read God,” as Thomas Merton used to say, visits me in sustaining ways when I take these ritual runs we always did on Saturday mornings years ago. There is something eminently sacred about sweating out the toxins, speaking out loud, “Praise God!”
But there is more. I realized that liturgical time and memory operate within that matrix of relationships and demand a certain foolish slavery to routine, as threatening as that is to liberated minds (and bodies and spirits). Consistent, faithful practice—just like going to bed early and crawling out of a warm bed into a damp, cold morning—shapes the communal memory. “Keeping memory” folds our faith lives into the spirit and grace of our ancestors, as together we are molded into Christ. We share with them this hunger for an act of communion, an intimacy with Christ and one another, for which they were willing to live and die for the life of the world and the praise of God. We simply have to make time for this practice. The liminal time of running—where 50 minutes are experienced as a significant whole in a way that 50 minutes of unfocused, often wasted, time never are—embraces within its ritual boundaries all of time:
It is truly right, proper, and helpful for salvation, that always and everywhere, in every time and season we gather to give you thanks and praise. All things are of your making, all times and seasons obey your laws.
Rhythm and harmony are the rule here. There is a place in that ritual dance for fear and angst, sorrow and regret, challenge and penitence. These dense parts of the human journey are colored and shaded here by a deeper joy and an experience of intimacy that only faithful practice at making relationships can generate. For most of us, the holy visitation leaps for joy solely at select and unexpected moments; but the holy presence becomes participative and inscribed into our very being over the unglamorous terrain of ordinary time, when we go to Eucharist because...because that is what we do, we go to Eucharist.
God will meet us there. Reverence for the primary symbols that make up that holy meeting fashion a place of hospitality where soulmates can meet, across time and place, in the season of joy and out of it, where presence cannot be isolated and we all have so much to say and so many ways to say it. As Edward Schillebeeckx claimed, this is God’s modus operandi. Bread and wine, fire and water and light come to mind. Stories proclaimed and chewed on and beckoning to something new are part of the mix. A faithful gatherer, like a mother who tenderly gathers her children or presides over the kitchen and the feast, plays an important shepherding role. And “the faithful ones,” the assembly praying and singing and processing in the night with tapers in the shivering cold—this is the primary sacrament that celebrates God’s saving deeds and whose life and promise have been inscribed into our corporate bones through water and fire, the word and the table of abundance. “Take and eat. This is my body.” Pablo Neruda was right: the blossom does and does not fall far from the tree. This is a real presence I shall never tire of investigating, in the study and on the trail, alone or with others.
So, when you hold
the hemisphere of a cut lemon
above your plate
a universe of gold,
a fragrant nipple
of the earth’s breast,
a ray of light that was made fruit,
the minute fire of a planet.
“Ode to the Lemon”
— Pablo Neruda