I was raised as a Baptist in Alabama, and spent my late childhood and early teens falling in love with Jesus and his Gospel. Years later, during my studies at Harvard Divinity School, I would discover a call to follow Jesus as an Episcopalian. The eight years or so in between I found myself on a prolonged hiatus from Church and from Christianity, zealously studying and practicing Buddhist meditation. I think my exposure to these practices was a providential preparation for my later encounter with Christian contemplative prayer, and the compassionate, joyful presence of the Buddhist monks who befriended and taught me may have planted the first seeds of the Christian monastic vocation I am living into today.
I spent a year in India as an undergraduate and took a course with a required practicum in Buddhist meditation. One of our instructors was Anagarika Shri Mundindra, a renowned and beloved teacher of vipassana, or “mindfulness” meditation. Munindra-ji had clearly been transformed by a lifetime of spiritual practice, and he was close to the end of his life at the time. On a sweltering September afternoon a small group of us American college students were asking him questions. He engaged each one with vigor and delight. There was a long pause, and we were aware that he needed frequent rest. But suddenly, in his rich, musical Bengali accent, Munindra-ji exclaimed: “Children, you must ask questions! Squeeeze me, and you will get the juice!” The ensuing laughter refreshed us like a cool drink, and the poignant image of this old, wise, playful man as a ripe orange or mango lingered in our hearts. Munindra-ji died about a month later.
In John’s gospel, Jesus has offered a long discourse on bread in the synagogue in Capernaum, culminating in the injunction to “eat his flesh and drink his blood.” A very literal translation of verse 56 can even be rendered: “The one who chews my flesh and drinks my blood stays in me and I in him.” Jesus here demands an active, intimate, and earthy engagement with his life, his words, his teachings, his wisdom and his love. None of these can be extracted from the other, but must be placed in the mouth whole, broken down with saliva, absorbed into the stomach. An intolerable and disturbing image to many. Jesus is too challenging to digest.
Jesus counters his complaining disciples with words that, superficially, seem to contradict what he has just said: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” I hear Jesus saying: “The perspective from which you are interpreting my words is not sufficiently –or consistently — engaged with the deeper reality of the Spirit.” Perhaps this is Jesus’ way of suggesting that the deeper and more subtle flavors of the Spirit only yield themselves to the one who persists in chewing, however unpalatable or tough the flesh may be: the marrow, the essence, or the juice, to use Munindra-ji’s word, does not yield itself any other way. The provocative imagery of consuming flesh and blood has awakened the deep attention and emotion of his listeners. Now the paired opposition he lays before them — “Chew my flesh” on the one hand, and “the flesh is useless” on the other, creates further, unresolved tension. Jesus, the living word of the Father, is sifting his followers, who can only persist in coming to him “by the gift of the Father.”
For the community that composed the Gospel of John, for its earliest hearers, and for us, the Eucharist was and is an established practice. It is almost difficult for us to hear words about Jesus’ flesh and blood without hearing Eucharistic imagery. The necessity of long, slow chewing to extract the Spirit is helpful in this sense as well. William Countryman notes that while John’s Gospel assumes the central role and necessity of baptism and Eucharist, there is also concern that these rites may be taken superficially, magically, or semi-idolatrously if divorced from the entire reality, Person, and Way of Jesus Christ, who is living Water and is living Bread, and who is always a union of flesh and Spirit. Countryman writes,“The sacraments are a step for the believer in becoming related to Jesus. They are not ends in themselves, nor are they a sufficient cause for salvation.”[i]
Jesus invites us to “Taste and see that the Lord is good” but he also demands that we chew. Like a ripe orange or mango, he invites a long and vigorous squeeze – a slippery and persistent engagement that may leave us sticky and exhausted. But the juice for his Father’s children is true drink indeed.
[i] Countryman, L. William. The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel. 58.
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