THE LORD’S PRAYER: Food, by Evelyn Underhill

Meditations Based on the Lord's Prayer

Food Evelyn Underhill

In the first part of the Lord’s Prayer, we are wholly concerned with God’s glory.  We pray with angelic spirits; creatures whose purposes are completely harmonized with the Creative Will.  In the second part, we turn from the Eternal Splendor to our Earthly limitations, and bring before God the burden, neediness, and sinfulness of our state.  Give us this day our daily bread.  With the proclamation of our utter dependence, the presentation before God of the simplest and most fundamental of our needs, we pass from adoration to petitions, and enter into the full paradox of Christian prayer: the unspeakable majesty and abiding perfection of the Infinite, and because of that majesty and that perfection, the importance of the claim of the fugitive, the imperfect, the finite.

The Heavens declare the Glory of God…
Lord, I call upon thee, haste thee unto me!

There is a natural tendency in man to reverse this order of approach; to come before God in a spirit of heaviness, greatly concerned with his own imperfections, needs, and desires – “my soul and its shortcomings,” “the world and its wants” – and defer the putting on of the garment of praise: that wedding garment which introduces us into the company of the sons of God and is the only possible beginning of real prayer.  Here, Christ’s teaching and practice are decisive.  First the Heavenly, then the Earthly.  First ascend in heart and mind to the Eternal, adore the Father, seek the Kingdom, accept the Will: and all the rest shall be added unto you.  Again and again the New Testament insists on that.  The contrast of the two worlds is absolute; but their interpenetration is complete.  No human need, however homely, is negligible; none lies outside the glow of God.  There is no point however tiny on which the whole power of the Eternal Love does not play.  Yet all the importance of the natural, the deep pathos of its need and imperfection, abides in its relation to God the Perfect and its dependence on him; all its reality in the extent to which it expresses his Will.  “Adam sinned when he fell from contemplation,” because in that moment he lost the clue to the meaning of life.  God is the First and the Last.  We shall never grasp the meaning of our experience, see it in proportion, unless we begin by seeking his Face.

So now from the august vision of the supernatural order declaring his holiness, and the living Will which molds, supports, and penetrates his creation, “mightily and sweetly ordering all things,” we turn, awed yet encouraged, to our little changing world; the homely arena within which the soul is required to glorify God.  That changing world, too, is completely dependent on him; incapable of embodying his will and beauty, unless fed, cleansed, and guided by the other-worldly Love.  The second part of the Lord’s Prayer, then, taking our situation as it is, brings before God the humbling realities of that natural life within which he finds us and calls us to the supernatural life, each in our own way and degree.

And first, our entire dependence.  Give us this day our daily bread.  In natural ways and in spiritual ways, man’s successive spirit is maintained in constant and intimate dependence on the Eternal Spirit; and would fall into nothingness were that support withdrawn.  Starvation both of body and soul is an ever-present possibility.  “Thou feedest thy poor ones abundantly with Heavenly loaves!” says an ancient prayer of the Spanish church; a declaration beginning in man’s Eucharistic experience, which spread to embrace that primal Charity by which the cosmos is sustained.  Indeed, this constant humbling dependence of the natural creature on food from beyond itself is a sacramental expression of a deeper mystery: the ceaseless self-imparting of God, the Food of the full-grown, to that childish soul which is being transformed into his image.  Here our poetic symbols and our half-realized prayers move upon the surface of a Fact far too great for us – the substantial food.  The prayer for our true Bread is a prayer for his self-imparting; and in the very prayer he is already given, for the petition of the creature and the self-imparting of the Creator are one moment.  “He is,” says Jacopone da Tody, “the gran donatore, pastor and pasture of the soul.”  This secret prevenience of God, the all-sufficing Food and all-cherishing Love, is the governing fact of the world of prayer.  Before him, in him, and by him our spirits live.  His pressure on and in the soul and the created world is ceaseless; coming by countless paths, or rather with a total freedom which fills all channels, overflows all paths, and finds its opportunity in every circumstance.

Nevertheless even here, where we know God’s self-giving to be absolute and our poverty to be complete, there is a certain demand upon our own effort.  Will must correspond with Grace.  Man must use his partial freedom, his power of choice, if he is indeed to grow up and be capable of the Food of the full-grown.  God gives without stint all that the creature needs, but it must do its part.  He gives the wheat: we must reap and grind and bake it.  Even the Eucharistic gifts must cost us trouble, bear the imprint of man’s toil.

As, in the soul’s life, will and grace rise and fall together, so in its prayer effort and abandonment are not alternatives, but completing opposites; and without their rightful balance there is no spiritual health.  “If any will not work, neither shall he eat,” said Saint Paul; a precept of spiritual as well as practical application.  “He gave then angels’ food from Heaven”; but they had to go out and gather the manna daily for themselves.  The discipline of God is bracing; he gives the soul’s food and gives it in abundance, but under conditions which make a wholesome demand on us.  None are dispensed from taking trouble.  And moreover the food is diverse according to the needs of each: “the way in which he is in tune with God, whether in outward good works or in the inward practice of love.” (John of Ruysbroeck)  A sustaining and comforting meal for those called to the active life; hard crusts for interior souls.  Here again, communion with God is never an experience imposed from without, but always a relation arising from within.  On one hand, the humble and confident expectation, the upstretched neck and open beak of the hungry bird; on the other, the mysterious self-imparting of a steadfast and cherishing love: “For we feed upon his Immensity which we cannot devour, and we yearn after his Infinity which we cannot attain.” (John of Ruysbroeck)

Yet in dealing with the ways of God with man, the single image is never adequate to the facts.  True, in the earlier stages of the life of prayer the soul is mainly conscious of a certain tension; of the object of desire, the satisfaction of hunger ever lying beyond its reach, the fullness of communion always missed, in spite of its own laborious humble effort.  It is committed, as Saint Teresa says, to hauling up the living water in its own bucket.  The rope is harsh, the well is deep, and it never gets enough to quench its thirst.  But presently it begins to realize that these hard and wholesome conditions do not impeach the free generosity of God.  They are educational rather than inevitable, and exist chiefly for the soul’s own sake; strengthening the will, developing the muscles, purifying the desire.  Beyond and within all this is the steady, unfailing gift under many various disguises of himself, the Living Water and the Living Food.

“Give us this day for bread the Word of God from Heaven,” says a version of the Lord’s Prayer found in the ancient Irish Gospels.  Here man in his ignorance and fragility utters the one and all-sufficing prayer.  For he is not fed by bread alone, not even by the appointed Bread of sacramental grace, but “by every word that proceeds from the Mouth of God” – all the utterances of the Spirit, all the messages given to him by and through life, and which make up life’s significance.  In all these, bitter or sweet, tasteless and dry or full of savor, God the Father of Spirits feeds our weak and childish spirits; that they may grow and ever more and more feed on him.  Cresce et manducabis me.

God gives himself mainly along two channels: through the soul’s daily life and circumstances and through its prayer.  In both that soul must always be ready for him; wide open to receive him, and willing to accept and absorb without fastidiousness that which is given, however distasteful and unsuitable it may seem.  For the Food of Eternal Life is mostly plain bread; and though it has indeed all sweetness and all savor for those who accept it with meekness and love, there is nothing in it to attract a more fanciful religious taste.  All life’s vicissitudes, each grief, trial, or sacrifice, each painful step in self-knowledge, every opportunity of love or renunciation, and every humiliating fall, have their place here.  All give, in their various ways and disguises, the Heavenly Food.  A sturdy realism is the mark of this divine self-imparting, and the enabling grace of those who receive.

The offered Christ is distributed among us.  Alleluia!
He gives us body as food and his blood he pours out for us.  Alleluia!
Draw near to the Lord and be filled with his light.  Alleluia!
Taste and see how sweet is the Lord.  Alleluia!

The symbolism of food plays a large part in all religions, and especially in Christianity.  As within the mysteries of the created order we must all take food and give food – more, must take life and give life – we are here already in touch with the “life-giving and terrible mysteries of Christ,” who indwells that order; for all is the sacramental expression of his all-demanding and all-giving Life.  We accept our constant dependence on physical food as a natural and inevitable thing.  Yet it is not necessarily so: there are creatures which are free from it for long periods of time.  But perhaps because of his borderline status, his embryonic capacity for God, man is kept in constant memory of his own fragility, unable to maintain his existence for long without food from beyond himself; his bodily life dependent on the humble plants and animals that surround him, his soul’s life on the unfailing nourishment of the life of God.  “I am the Bread of Life that came down from Heaven.  He that eateth of this bread shall live for ever.”  Eternal Life is the gift, the self-imparting of the Eternal God.  We cannot claim it in our own right.

The Biblical writers make plain to us how easily and inevitably men have given spiritual rank to this primitive truth of life’s dependence on food, and seen in it the image of a deeper truth which concerns the very ground of our being.

They give us the strange and haunting figure of Melchizedek, the King and Priest of Salem, of whom we are told so little yet feel we know so much.  It is a picture which holds us by something which far transcends historic accuracy; something conveyed yet unexpressed, like the undertones of a great poem.  While the other kings are fighting, slaying, disputing, their spoils – living the full animal life of self-assertion and self-development – Melchizedek comes forth from his hilltop city, in a quiet majesty which we instinctively identify with holiness; bearing, not any signs of power, but bread and wine.  He is the meek and royal minister of a generous God.  This thought of the King and Priest, unarmed and undemanding, bearing Bread and Wine from the Holy City to the poor fighters in the plain, cannot have been far from our Lord’s mind when, on the eve of the turmoil and agony of the Passion, he blessed and broke the loaves, took the chalice “into his holy and venerable hands” and gave thanks; and, with and in this token sacrifice, gave himself to be forevermore the food of men, “named of God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 5:10)  That noble movement of the ancient king, who did not await his guests within the Holy City, but came forth as one that serveth, bearing bread and wine, is indeed a perfect image of the royal charity which comes to seek men’s souls on the plain where they struggle, bearing the gifts of eternal life.  The Eastern churches have always called the Eucharistic elements the “gifts”; and in the ancient liturgies this emphasis on an unspeakable free gift made to men by God, “one Heavenly Bread, one Food of the whole world,” (Liturgy of Saint James), is heard as a recurrent melody.

He gave them bread from Heaven to eat.  Alleluia.
Having in itself all sweetness and all savor.  Alleluia.

Throughout his ministry, our Lord, emphasized the idea of feeding as something intimately connected with his love and care for souls.  The mystery of the Eucharist does not stand alone.  It is the crest of a great wave; a total sacramental disclosure of the dealings of the Transcendent God with men.  The hunger of man is the matter of Christ’s first temptation.  The feedings of the four thousand and the five thousand are more than miracles of practical compassion; we feel that in them something of deep significance is done, one of the mysteries of Eternal Life a little bit unveiled.  So too in the Supper at Emmaus; when the bread is broken the Holy One is known.  It is peculiar to Christianity, indeed part of the mystery of the Incarnation, that it constantly shows us this coming of God through and in homely and fugitive things and events; and puts the need and dependence of the creature at the very heart of prayer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: