Raised Catholic, I was formed in a sacramental spirituality. Christ in the bread and the wine, the very presence of Christ is in ordinary, daily bread, broken and shared. “Give us this day our daily bread.” I expected to experience the presence of the divine, in ordinary, common, essential physical objects—bread, wine, water, oil, candles.
My sacramental spirituality was deepened by seven years at St. John’s Abbey and University, three of those years I was a Benedictine monk. The Rule of St. Benedict emphasizes the sacredness of the ordinary, of the daily. God is present in a schedule of daily prayer, in regular times for silence, in the rhythm of prayer and work (“ora et labora”). Monks are even urged “to regard all the vessels of the monastery and all its substance, as if they were sacred vessels of the altar” (Rule of Benedict chp. 31). And this divine presence in the daily is especially emphasized in the monastic practice of hospitality, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35)” (Rule of St. Benedict, chp. 53)
My formation in sacramental spirituality shapes my work at Manna House. The daily tasks of hospitality are times of divine encounter. The daily tasks draw me out of myself in a discipline of love. Each task requires that I be open to a daily reality that is demanding, insistent, ongoing: folding laundry, making coffee, filling sugar containers, wiping down the picnic tables, the benches, and chairs before opening, taking out trash, sorting donations, cleaning the shower room and the small bathroom. What could be drudgery in an invitation to divine encounter.
This sacramental spirituality is most important in the daily demand to open my eyes to see Christ in the guests who come for showers, clothing, coffee, and a place of sanctuary from the streets. To the Catholic list of seven sacraments, an eighth sacrament is added. I learned early on the definition of a sacrament, “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus clearly institutes the outward sign of “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…. Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Mt 25:35-36, 40). And those who participate in this sign instituted by Christ hear these grace-filled words, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Mt 25:34).
Christ in the stranger was invited in on Tuesday morning when we opened Manna House at 8am. Christ prayed with us and then headed to the coffee line or the showers.
I talked with Christ in the backyard. He even has the initials “J.C.” A volunteer had given J.C. coffee. There was also cold water available. The thirsty were given something to drink.
A little later in the morning, I walked to the nearby Southern College of Optometry (SCO) with Christ present in two guests. The walk over was slow. Both guests have leg problems. Only one had a cane. They shared the cane. One used it for half a block, then the other for the next half block, and on. When we finally got there, they picked out frames for new glasses. SCO had given free eye exams. Manna House will buy the frames. The sick were looked after.
Meanwhile, other volunteers offered showers and clothes to Christ. Ten women showered and after them, two transvestites. Christ’s need for some fresh clothing was met.
Christ talked with me about the meal that had been served at Manna House the previous evening. Christ had been hungry and had been given something to eat.
Christ came from 201 Poplar and got on the shower list for Thursday. He reminded me that in a previous stay out at the penal farm, Manna House had put some money “on his book” so he could get items like underwear and toothpaste. The prisoner had been attended to.
Toward the end of the morning, Christ arrived in a car driven by his wife. Christ has cancer which has metastasized from his kidneys into his lungs and other organs. He is tired and in pain. He had a doctor’s appointment to get to later. I promised to pray for him and to make sure we also pray for him every morning when we open.
This is the hard edge of sacramental spirituality. God present in the daily, reaches into every corner of our lives, in the ordinary demands of life, and even into suffering and death. God invites me into the daily tasks of hospitality, and into relationship with people I might otherwise avoid, to go beyond myself. God’s invitation to be open to the needs and suffering in human life (including my own), invites me to face reality. This reality punctures my illusions of self-sufficiency and makes possible my embrace of shared vulnerability. Responding to God’s daily invitation, I can affirm that love, going out from myself to give myself to God and to others, is the path to fullness of life. Bread must be broken to be shared.