A POEM HAS CHANGED MY MIND about the Eucharist. For the better part of two decades—since I was baptized in a Cambridge college chapel, inaugurating my life not just as a Christian, but as a Christian of the Anglican-Episcopal sort—I have been mildly irked at my churches’ habit of using those small round wafers during Communion. At the Methodist divinity school where I teach, and at many of the Presbyterian or nondenominational churches I’ve visited, the Lord’s Supper usually features a loaf of bread, sometimes baked by one of the communicants. But most of the fifteen hundred or so Eucharists I’ve received, and all but two or three of those I’ve celebrated, consecrate wafers. This has irritated me. I read John 6, and I long to celebrate the Eucharist with bread that more obviously evokes Jesus’s words. If I want to understand that Jesus-in-the-Eucharist is real food, wouldn’t the better ritual object be a baguette or a stottie, rather than a wafer that feels and tastes like Kleenex stiffened with glue? At church, we sing “Bread of Heaven, on thee we feed, for thou art our food indeed,” and I find myself daydreaming about a parish bread guild; I imagine us baking ciabatta and Irish soda bread; I imagine Moravian love feasts.
Sometimes, I’m given a glimpse of how the wafer qua wafer might be instructive. Icons that depict manna in the wilderness as Eucharistic wafers offer such a glimpse. They remind me that the whole point is that the host is not, in fact, ordinary bread, just as the manna was not ordinary bread—the host is precisely bread that is also the flesh of Jesus. The panary irregularity of the wafer guards against my mistaking the Eucharist for a meal that is made special because we remember, rather than eat, Jesus.
I’m wary of reducing a poem (or, for that matter, an icon or a sacrament) to its pedagogical potential—here’s what it can teach us—but poems (and icons and sacraments) disclose, and when poems engage Christianity, they show us things about God and the Christian life that theological treatises cannot. It is a poem’s disclosure that has latterly made me glad that the Eucharistic community in which I’ve landed prefers wafers to bread.
The most overtly Eucharistic of Elizabeth Jennings’s poems were published in the decade before her 2001 death, and, in my judgment, they’re not her best poetry—they’re a bit too direct. Yet they are right-headed: “the bread wraps / Christ thinly in it,” she writes in “At Mass (I)”—“Time ceases when the gold ciborium’s lid / Is lifted and Christ comes to us as still // As he was at his birth.” And, in “At Mass (II),” “The celebration works on us.” When, after the Mass, we return to the ordinary world, we’re able to see that world transfigured: “all the usual things // Are shining with right purpose.”
Those poems pose with economy—and, in the case of her word “thinly,” with striking complexity—commonplace truths about the Eucharist. It is Jennings’s “A Full Moon” that showed me something less commonplace, something I’d not yet seen:
Tonight the full moon is the Host held up
For everybody’s eyes
After those opening lines, Jennings limns biblical history (“we refused / To leave one Tree alone” but God’s “overflowing grace / Gave us another chance”) and diagnoses the human condition (“It seems we cannot bear for long / A simple goodness but must choose the wrong // Because it looks so sweet”). And then the poem returns to the lunar Eucharist:
—-That Host-like moon shines where
All can see him….
—-That moon in silence can
Elevate us till we long to know
—-The Trinity’s whole plan.
The moon allows human beings to mimic the choreography of the Host: drawn heavenward by the full moon, we become, Host-like, something “elevate[d]”—and, when we receive the moon as a Eucharist of sorts (when we see that the moon participates in the Eucharist), we are pulled by the moon past the moon to its creator: “Nature was fashioned for this purpose. See / A moon remind us of God’s ministry.”
On a straightforward reading, the poem means for me to look at the full moon and see the flesh of Christ. Jennings’s evocation of the moon is not transcendentalism, not Emerson’s learning “from nature the lesson of worship.” It is, rather, Jennings showing readers how to see the world as a Christian—how to see, as Christina Rossetti did, that “sparrow and lily…recall God’s providence, seed His Word, earthly bread the Bread of Heaven, a plough the danger of drawing back”; or how to see, as Justin Martyr did, the cross in ships’ masts, unicorn horns, and human noses.
Jennings may not have anticipated that “The Full Moon” would help an American Episcopal priest appreciate her church’s wafer—a loaf of artisanal ciabatta might make my Sunday Eucharist seem more like a real meal, but it wouldn’t allow me to see the Eucharist in the sky at night. In “At Mass (II),” Jennings writes that “Every moment of enchantment we’ve / ever known…here is present.” Yes—and, like all the best metaphors, hers are recursive: showing the moon to be a Eucharist of sorts is enchantment that loops back around to enchant my wafer. The poem, like the Eucharist itself, has made an ordinary thing (a moon; a wafer) shine with its right purpose.
What Jennings has offered is not just a metaphor or simile: because the cosmos bears the image of its creator, traces of Jesus really are there in the moon. Poetry is not first for didacticism, but teaching is one thing a poem can do, and I am grateful to have been instructed by Jennings’s “Host-like moon.” I like looking up at night and finding a vestige of Jesus; I prefer to live in a world that’s enchanted, and not just commodified.
Ships’ masts may partake of the cross and the moon a Eucharist, but only eyes trained to see the marks of the maker in creation will notice. (Just as a piece of writing might carry the stylistic signature of Wallace Stevens or T.S. Eliot, but untrained readers won’t perceive it.) Partakers of the Eucharist, too, need to be taught what to see. In the early church, bishops worried about the anticlimax of first Communion: “Perhaps you may say: I see something else; how do you tell me that I receive the Body of Christ?” wrote Ambrose. The newly baptized had to learn to see with “the eyes of the heart.”
I have begun taking poetry lessons. I’d like to learn to write a poem. But I’d be satisfied if I could learn to see what’s really there in the poems I read. (Maybe I’m being unfair to Jennings. Maybe her later Eucharistic poetry has formal excellences I don’t know how to see.)
Yehuda Amichai’s “I Studied Love” is another poem that joins the moon and liturgy. The narrator is a boy in synagogue, looking through the white lace partition that separates the sexes at prayer. He wishes to be with the women, wishes to pray the prayers that only women pray.
And the faces of women like the face of the moon behind the clouds
or the full moon when the curtain parts: an enchanted
cosmic order. At night we said the blessing
over the moon outside, and I
thought about the women.
This, too, is instruction about figures and prayer. Amichai elongates the chain of associations that Jennings began—Jennings sees her liturgical artifact (the Eucharist) in a moon; Amichai first sees the moon in his liturgical artifact (the women’s faces), and then he comes to find their faces in the moon.
The recursivity works like this: once you see that the moon is a Eucharist and your Eucharist a moon, then all that you know about one becomes a key for reading the other. You think about how the Eucharist is hidden, as the full moon is always really present, but often hidden. Remembering what your auntie taught you about herbs—that their healing properties are intensified if they’re gathered under a plenilune—you sympathize with Christians in the Middle Ages, asking priests to celebrate the Eucharist in their gardens, knowing the Eucharistic crumbs would feed and magic their beets and lettuces. You ponder the long-held belief that the full moon drives people crazy, and you think about the Eucharist as the “insanity of the cross.”
“No poetic cliché is more weary than the moon,” wrote one of Dickinson’s biographers (before proceeding to hymn the art Dickinson made from that particular cliché). Perhaps the Eucharist is weary sometimes, too.
In one of those poems the Dickinson scholar loves, Dickinson likens the moon she sees through a window to a guillotined head. Of course, now that’s what I think about as I sit beside the reserved sacrament on Good Friday.
As we sing, “O sacred head now wounded.”
As we sing, “’Twas on that dark, that doleful night.”
As we sing, “The moon, the stars, the universe, their maker’s death bewail.”
Sources for this essay include: on seeing with the eyes of the heart, Georgia Frank’s “‘Taste and See’: The Eucharist and the Eyes of Faith in the Fourth Century”; on the insanity of the cross, Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing; on Dickinson’s wresting luminous moon poems from a cliché, Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson.
Lauren F. Winner is the vicar of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Louisburg, North Carolina, and a professor at Duke Divinity School. Her book The Dangers of Christian Practice (Yale) will be published in October.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.