A few years ago, I read a news article about a computer gamer who set out to create a perfectly balanced liquid foodstuff that would alleviate the need for gamers like himself ever to leave their computer screen. His plan to foster ever greater nerdiness appeared to me to be the antithesis of a healthy life. His nutrient-rich liquid nourishment sounded like the love child of Soylent Green and infant formula. Perhaps worse than the couch-meal-in-a-pouch was his assumption that spending the majority of one’s waking hours engaged in a single activity could ever be a good idea.
A certain amount of computer time, television watching, facebooking, and the like is relatively harmless. A steady diet of only one activity is dehumanizing. His self-imposed solitary confinement on the couch in front of a screen really needed the remedy of better behavior. There’s something very self-destructive about a society that produces people who opt-out voluntarily through compulsive activities.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (Jn. 6:55-56) It is easy enough to misunderstand Jesus’ words to be encouragement to engage in repulsive eating habits. Jesus’ original audience probably thought he was abrogating the kosher laws’ prohibition of consuming an animal’s blood along with its flesh. This section of John’s Gospel is intentionally ambiguous; consequently, the crowd misunderstood Jesus’ words.
The crowds who followed Jesus are not alone in misunderstanding him. There is a common misunderstanding among Catholics about the nature of the Eucharist. Some people assume that reception of the Eucharist alone is sufficient to maintain a spiritual life. Jesus’ statement in today’s Gospel sounds like something that would discourage one from eating when, in fact, he is encouraging his disciples to pay close attention to how they nourish their souls.
The life of faith is not properly nourished by only one form of spiritual food any more than one form of edible food is sufficient to nourish our physical selves. Computer gamers, pay attention! Weekly reception of the Eucharist is an indispensable part of the spiritual life, but it is only one part among several. In addition to active, weekly participation in the Eucharist, it is necessary to have a daily prayer life based in the Scriptures, it is necessary to participate in the Church’s evangelizing mission, and it is necessary to follow the Catholic moral code.
I’d like to suggest one further means of nourishing our souls by receiving the body and blood of the Crucified Lord. Our reception of the Eucharist doesn’t take place in a vacuum and it is not a solitary act. The Eucharist is essentially communal. The local church congregation is integral to the reception of Holy Communion and active participation in one’s local congregation is essential to worthy reception of the Eucharist.
Among the several necessary activities in which we encounter and receive the Body of Christ is active engagement with our parish congregation. The Church is Christ’s Body through Baptism; our interactions with one another, therefore, are a means of receiving Christ’s Body, the Church.
There are numerous possibilities for regular engagement with the parish. There are numerous volunteer opportunities, faith formation opportunities, and community service opportunities. Our parish engages in these activities not because they are pragmatic necessities for maintaining the buildings or the budget, but because they are essential needs in the life of every believer.
If I asked you, at this moment, to imagine a large, delicious Sunday morning breakfast, you would not find the thought of that breakfast nearly as satisfying as actually eating the breakfast. The mere thought of food doesn’t satisfy hunger.
In a similar manner, thinking about Jesus’ teachings doesn’t satisfy the spirit. The occasional thought of God is insufficient to feed us. Sufficient nourishment for our souls requires on-going, direct participation in public prayer (the Eucharist), private prayer with the Scriptures, following Catholic morality, and participating actively in the life of the parish.
If you find that your experience of Sunday Mass is not entirely satisfying, or if you find that there is a deep, nagging hunger in your life, or if your consumption of large quantities of material goods leaves you feeling empty, then your problem is obvious: your spirit is starving for sufficient, healthy nourishment.
When Jesus said to the crowds, “my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink,” they assumed that he was talking nonsense. He was, in fact, pointing out the completely nonsensical nature of trying to foster a spiritual life by denying oneself adequate spiritual nourishment. The spiritual food that fully satisfies our souls consists in receiving the presence of Jesus in the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the daily life of the parish.