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The Living Bread
By Thomas Merton
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1956 Thomas Merton
All rights reserved.
UNTO THE END
1. Christ's Love for Us
In writing or speaking of the Blessed Sacrament, which is the very heart and focus of the whole Christian life, there are two extremes to be avoided. On one hand we must not degrade the great sacramental mystery to the level of mere sentimentality by an abuse of pious imagination, and on the other hand we must not treat that mystery in such pure theological abstractions that we forget that it is the great sacrament of God's love for us. The simplicity of the Gospels keeps us from either of these extremes.
The Gospels tell us the sublimest mysteries of our faith in terms that are concrete and easy for any human mind to understand. Of the four evangelists, no one has given the loftiest revealed truths a more concrete embodiment than St. John the author of the Fourth Gospel. The disciple whom Jesus loved opens his account of the Last Supper and of the Passion with these deeply moving words: "Before the feast of the Passover, knowing that the hour had come for Him to pass out of the world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them unto the end" (John 13:1). And from these words it is immediately clear that the Sacrament and Sacrifice of the Eucharist which Jesus instituted at the Last Supper are, like His Passion and Resurrection which they perpetuate until the end of time, the ineffably perfect embodiment of His Love for us. I say "embodiment" rather than expression, because in this divine sacrament the infinite Love of God continues to be incarnate, to dwell among us in His bodily substance, hidden beneath the species of Bread and Wine.
The Christian life is nothing else but Christ living in us, by His Holy Spirit. It is Christ's love, sharing itself with us in charity. It is Christ in us, loving the Father, by His Spirit. It is Christ uniting us to our brothers by charity in the bond of this same Spirit.
Jesus often expressed His desire to share with us the mystery of His divine life. He said that He came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). He came to cast that life of charity like fire upon the earth, and He longed to see it enkindled. He especially desired that He might undergo the "baptism" of His Passion and death, because He knew that by this alone He would be able to incorporate us into His mystery, and make us, with Himself, sons of God. No wonder then that He said He was "straitened," that is to say He felt like one bound and confined, like a prisoner in chains, until this baptism was accomplished. His infinite charity, imprisoned within His Sacred Heart, longed to burst out of its confinement and communicate itself to all mankind, for as God, He is substantial goodness, and the very nature of the good is to be diffusive of itself.
That is why the Church, in her liturgy, continues to apply to Christ in the Blessed Eucharist those words which Jesus spoke to the suffering men of His time: "Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you" (Matth. 11:28). For in the Eucharist the Christ of the Last Supper still breaks bread with His disciples, still washes their feet to show them that unless He abase Himself and minister to them they can have no part in Him (John 13:8). In the Eucharist, He still blesses the sacred chalice and hands it to those He loves. There is only one difference. At the Last Supper, Christ had not yet suffered, died and risen. Now, at our daily Mass, the Christ Who enters silently and invisibly to become present in the midst of His disciples is the Christ Who sits in glory at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. It is Christ the immortal King and Conqueror. It is Christ Who, having died once for us, "dieth now no more" (Rom. 6:9). At the same time, He comes to us in all the simplicity, the poverty, the obscurity which we have learned, from the Gospels, to associate with His Incarnation.
In rising from death, Jesus lost nothing of His humanity. Ascending in glory into the inaccessible mystery of the Godhead, His throne, He did not cease to love us with the same human tenderness and completeness which St. John describes in three simple words: "unto the end." The Blessed Eucharist opens up to us the depths of meaning which those three words contain.
In saying that Jesus loved His own "unto the end," the evangelist is not merely telling us that Our Savior loved us to the very end of His earthly life, that He loved us so much that He died for us. Jesus said: "Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). And yet Jesus Himself has done more than lay down His life for us. He has loved us with a love that cannot be confined by the ordinary boundaries of human life. In giving us the Eucharist as a "memorial" of His passion, death and resurrection, He has made present, for all time, the love with which he died for us. More than that, He has made the Passion itself present in mystery. And He Himself, Who knew and saw us by His divine foreknowledge when He blessed bread in the Cenacle and when He took up His Cross, wills to be substantially present in the Eucharist, to know us and love us, to share His presence and love with us sacramentally until the end of time.
Now this desire of Christ was far more than an expression of the purest human tenderness. It is not merely as a gesture of fond affection that He remains with us in the Eucharist. His divine work was accomplished, objectively, when He breathed forth His soul on the Cross. But, as He said through the lips of the Psalmist (Ps. 15:10) there would be no value in His Blood if it went down into corruption. He consecrated Himself as a sacrificial offering (John 17:19) in order that we might be "sanctified in truth" (idem.). If He comes to us in the Blessed Sacrament, He comes with work to do: not in Himself, but in us. And what is this work? John tells us, in the great eucharistic chapter of the Fourth Gospel: "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent" (John 6:29). And if we know the Gospels, we realize that the word "believe" here implies far more than a simple intellectual assent to revealed truth. It means the wholehearted acceptance not only of the Gospel message but of the very person of Christ. It means doing the works of Christ, for "he who believes in me, the works that I do he also shall do" (John 14:12). It means loving Christ, and by virtue of that love receiving the Spirit of Christ into our hearts. It means keeping His commandments, particularly loving one another (John 14:21). It means realizing that Christ is in the Father, and we in Christ, and Christ in us (John 14:20).
In a word, the work Christ does in the world, through the action of His Spirit, through His Church, and through His holy sacraments, is the work of incorporating and transforming us into Himself by charity. This is the work above all of the Holy Eucharist.
Now in the reception of the sacraments, it is of course first of all necessary that we believe in Christ, Who sanctifies us through the sacraments. We must be baptized Christians. We must live according to our baptismal vows, and renounce sin. We must consecrate ourselves to God and to His divine charity. We must live unselfishly, that is to say, we must find our own fulfillment in loving God and other men. But in order that the sacraments may produce their full effect in us, in order particularly that our eucharistic life may be really a life and not a mere outward formality, we must strive to increase not only our appreciation of the sacramental mystery itself, but also our understanding of the love of Christ Who is present and Who acts on us in the Sacrament.
These two are simply different aspects of the same thing, which is Christ's love for us. On the one hand, the marvelous reality of Christ's sacramental presence, a mystery of God's wisdom and power, bathes and purifies our intelligence with a clean light that awakens the depths of our will to a love beyond all human affection. On the other hand His love for us awakens in our hearts a spiritual instinct to love Him in return, and by this love we come to know God.
Love for God is the deepest fulfillment of the powers implanted by God in our human nature which He has destined for union with Himself. In loving Him, we discover not only the inner meaning of truths which we would otherwise never be able to understand, but we also find our true selves in Him. The charity which is stirred up in our hearts by the Spirit of Christ acting in the depths of our being makes us begin to be the persons He has destined us to be in the inscrutable designs of His Providence. Moved by the grace of Christ we begin to discover and to know Christ Himself as a friend knows a friend — by the inner sympathy and understanding which friendship alone can impart. This loving knowledge of God is one of the most important fruits of eucharistic communion with God in Christ.
St. Paul, in his Epistles, repeatedly sums up the whole meaning of the mature Christian life. Writing to the Ephesians, he tells them how important it is for them "to be strengthened with power through His Spirit unto the progress of the inner man and to have Christ dwelling through faith in your hearts, so that being rooted and grounded in love you may be able to comprehend with all the saints ... and to know Christ's love which surpasses knowledge, in order to be filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:16-19). Here in a few words we see something of the purpose of Holy Communion, considered as the summit of the life of faith and of the sacraments. Nourished by the Gospel message, by the life of fraternal solidarity in Christ, by liturgical and private prayer, the Christian finds that his inner life reaches its highest peak of ever increasing intensity when, in his eucharistic communion with the Lord, he is united directly and sacramentally to the Incarnate Word. In Communion, he is not only penetrated through and through by the mystical fire of Christ's charity, but rests in an immediate contact with the very Person of the Word Incarnate. In such union, how can one whose charity remains vigilant in the darkness of faith fail to gain a deeper and more intimate knowledge of the very soul of Jesus? This love, this knowledge of the Lord, at once the purest and most secret effect of Holy Communion, is without doubt one which has a very great importance in the eyes of Christ Himself. For His intention in instituting the Blessed Sacrament was to give us this lofty and mysterious participation in His own divine life. "Amen, amen I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you shall not have life in you" (John 6:54). But it is quite clear that this life of which Jesus speaks is in the highest sense the life of the spirit, not merely the life of the flesh. Communion is a contact with His Spirit Who "gives life; the flesh profits nothing." The very words of this doctrine are, He says, "spirit and life" (John 6:64). But the most perfect fulfillment of this life which begins with faith, is the contemplation of God. Our growth in life is a growth in knowledge and love of God, in Jesus Christ. "This is eternal life that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Him whom Thou hast sent, Jesus Christ" (John 17:3).
If we are Christians in all truth, we will desire to grow and develop in this eucharistic life which is nothing else but the Christian life in all its perfection. We will seek to realize more and more what it means to receive Christ sacramentally and have Him living in us, what it means to be members of His Mystical Body, united to one another in Him by our communions. We will pray for a deeper and deeper understanding of the great mystery which sums up the whole plan of God for His world, and the whole mission of Christ in the world: the recapitulation of all in Christ, the work of charity which transforms us all in Him so that we are one in Him as He is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Our communions are more truly and more perfectly what they are called when they are a sharing in the divine life of contemplation and love which Christ lives in the Blessed Trinity. Our communions are most fruitful when, besides increasing our charity for other men and deepening our faith, they bring us a more intimate and purer knowledge of the mystery of Christ in Whom we are all one.
There are three chief ways in which this can be done. The first is by active participation in the liturgy. The second by a more profound and purer life of charity, as the outcome of our participation in the Mass. The third is by meditation and adoration and contemplative prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Of these three the first two are absolutely essential, and the third is very important.
These three ways are simply aspects of our eucharistic communion. The most perfect participation in the sacrifice of the Mass is to receive Communion at a Mass which one has followed intelligently and actively through all its principal parts. Our life of charity is, or should be, the prolongation and expression of our communions. It testifies to the reality of our oneness in Christ, which is signified and effected by the very Sacrament which we receive and which is one of the chief fruits of sacramental communion. Jesus, in giving to us His own Body in Mystery, makes us one Body in Himself, members one of another.
Eucharistic adoration, and mental prayer in silence before the tabernacle, provide another fruitful way of prolonging our communion. All these three ways of developing our eucharistic life are necessary. They complete one another. Adoration and mental prayer without any interest in the Mass would be a perversion of the Christian spirit. Fraternal charity and good works, even united with the Mass and flowing from it, might still lead to a deviation from the right road if they did not imply some moments of silent thanksgiving after Communion, and of meditation and adoration before the tabernacle.
At the present time the tendency is to stress our participation in the action of the Holy Sacrifice, and the overflow of our eucharistic life in apostolic action or other works of charity. This emphasis is excellent. The need for it has been felt for a long time and it is most necessary in the hour of crisis in which we find ourselves. The emphasis on eucharistic adoration has long been popular, and it was one of the characteristic features of Christian devotion in the age that has been brought to an end by two world wars. But are we to think that it is merely a passing fashion, something that will gradually drop out of existence as the full meaning of the central action of the Church's liturgical life regains its full prominence?
In any case, our response to Christ's love for us in the Blessed Eucharist is to live a full and well-integrated eucharistic life. In such a life, communion, adoration, fraternal charity, and active participation in the liturgy will not be seen as separate and unrelated "practices." They will be drawn together in one supremely relevant focus upon the central Mystery of our faith — our sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we really begin to grasp the meaning of this great Mystery, we will no longer be preoccupied with an apparent contradiction between liturgical and non-liturgical devotion to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. One will flow naturally from the other, and each will retain its proper place in relation to the other. The so-called "extra-liturgical" devotions to the Blessed Sacrament will be seen as a fruitful prolongation of the liturgy, and our meditation before the tabernacle will help us to enter more deeply into the truth of Christ's actual presence under the sacramental veils — a presence without which the ritual mystery of the Mass could not be accomplished.
If Christ is not sacramentally present in the Eucharist, then the Mass is no longer anything but a ceremony, a pious commemoration of a past event. If Christ is not actually present in the consecrated Host, then the priest is nothing but a preacher, not a man set apart by God to offer sacrifice. Indeed, if Christ is not really and substantially present in the Blessed Eucharist, then the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, also loses its meaning and becomes nothing more than a metaphor: for it is the Sacramental Christ Who is the Head and support of the Mystical Body. It is the Eucharist that unites us in one Body to Christ our Head: "Because the bread is one, we though many are one body, all of us who partake of one bread" (I Cor. 10:17).
Excerpted from The Living Bread by Thomas Merton. Copyright © 1956 Thomas Merton. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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