Shadow Eucharist

In reading books, my heart is sometimes grabbed by an image that evokes an immediate and enduring sense of desire, and that gives form to the object of the desire, offering a concrete picture of what I’m longing for. I experienced this while reading the following passage in Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom:

Families and friendships can be powerful incubators of desire for [God’s] kingdom. When Christians engage in the practices of hospitality and Sabbath keeping, singing and forgiveness, simplicity and fasting, they are engaging in a way of life that is formative and constitutive of Christian discipleship. These “practices beyond Sunday” are further opportunities to rehearse a way of life, to practice (for) the kingdom. For example, for several years now, my wife and I have gathered once a week with our best friends for a ritual we describe as “Wednesday Night Wine” (even if we sometimes have to push it to a Tuesday or a Thursday). After their little ones are in bed (our teenagers are left to fend for themselves), we make our way over to their place with a different bottle of wine each week, enjoyed with some cheese, crackers, and usually a little (Swiss) chocolate. We keep a journal of the wines, noting our tasting comments, rating them (rank amateurs that we are), and in the journal we also keep a little record of our topics of conversation, what’s been happening with our kids, and significant events in the past week. We commiserate with one another about the burdens of parenting and share the joys of the same. We’ve mourned together, been frustrated together, worked through tensions with each other, confided in one another. When we were going through struggles “at church,” in our community of gathered worship, this Wednesday night table was a refreshing and welcome “table in the wilderness.” It has been nothing short of a shadow Eucharist, a veritable extension of the Lord’s Supper. (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 212)

The image of Smith’s “shadow Eucharist” has haunted me in the years since I first read those lines. I want to sit at a table like that, with friends like that, and experience that kind of sharing hearts and lives. I want it so much it hurts.

Therein lies the problem. It’s a little hard to explain, but I’ll try.

Nothing is more foundational to communion among human beings than commitment and desire. Desire without commitment lacks faithfulness. Commitment without desire lacks fervency, heart, warmth. Faithfulness and fervency are essential to friendly communion. If my friends sense that I’m not committed to them and/or have no real desire for them (by “real desire” I mean desire that manifests itself in some tangible way, rather than remaining a mere professed feeling), there is no basis for them to continue to regard me as their friend.

To put this a bit more simply, if I want to have friends, I need to want to have friends. I need to want these particular friends, which means I must want to relate with them the way true friends relate – with deep mutual commitment and desire.

But this desire for friendship – this desire for commitment and desire – is extremely similar (in fact, it seems at first almost identical) to what may be the greatest poison to human relationships: neediness. We’ve probably all experienced being wanted by someone in ways that make us feel uncomfortable, used, trapped, exploited, etc. The mere fact that someone attaches himself to me (committedly!) and really wants to be friends with me doesn’t mean we’re well on our way to authentic friendship. To the contrary, such neediness evokes loathing, the more so as it becomes increasingly demanding.

A troubling question, then, in seasons of loneliness and longing for friends and fellowship, is whether one’s desire for a friend is of the pure sort – that necessary ingredient of all true communion – or whether it is the poisonous variety that eats the vitals out of any relationship it infects. Do I really desire these people in a way that will fill and enrich and honor them, or do I merely desire them to fill some void in myself? Speaking personally, I have hesitated again and again at the threshold of initiating some form of friendly communion, agonizing over how I will respond if the other party doesn’t reciprocate my desire. Of course I want my friends to respond, and they need to feel that in some way, or I am not being a true friend; but if I desire their response the wrong way, or they feel a wrong sense of desire from me, the thing is doomed.

Take, for example, Smith’s “shadow Eucharist.” For this scene to work, it must be the right people at the table. It must be people I trust, whom I sincerely enjoy, and who sincerely enjoy me. It is also the case, however, that true love can’t be too choosy or exclusive, or it ends up being toxically possessive.

If the “shadow Eucharist” is to be deeply satisfying, everyone at the table must want to be there – the experience must be something mutually desired – but the desire must not be needy (“I just couldn’t get through my weeks without this”), or it will eventually become suffocating, pressured, just one more thing we all have to do to keep everyone happy.

Likewise, such an event (weekly or otherwise) must be something planned, structured, and committed to. If we start to cancel on a regular basis, the sweet comfort and reliability of the ritual disappears. It goes without saying that it can be participated in only by those who are rooted together in community, who are not just passing through. With all of that said, such commitment can’t be demanded; an involuntary commitment, made only to satisfy an insistent manager, will not sustain fellowship.

I’m not sure the solution to this problem is simply to say, “Well, if it happens organically [i.e., accidentally], it happens.” That strikes me as a surrender of desire, and with it of the foundation for friendship. Friendships do occasionally just “happen”; more usually (and arguably in every case, at some point in the friendship), they are cultivated. I’ve even begun to wonder if the best friendships involve some sort of oath, some sort of formalized covenanting. David and Jonathan come to mind.

I do think one clear way forward is for Christian communities to regard this as a matter of ongoing conversation. We need to study friendship, fellowship, communion, and learn how to enact it well. We need to think through “shadow Eucharists,” the commitment such fellowship requires, the rootedness and stability it requires, the fervent desire it requires; and we need to set the table for each other and reach toward each other, inviting a reciprocal embrace. It will be the case that, again and again, our desire will go unanswered and unfulfilled. The true test of our love, however, is whether we will continue to spread the feast and invite others to it, in hopes that in so doing our eyes will be opened, and we will know that our Lord Himself has broken bread with us, and our hearts have burned together in His presence.

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