17 December 2008, Review by Eamon Duffy
Make sure to wear a crash helmet
Why Go to Church? the drama of the Eucharist
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The Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent book is an influential annual focus for devotional reading by thousands of Anglicans, used by both individuals and parish study groups. Rowan Williams' open-hearted invitation to Timothy Radcliffe to write the Lent book for 2009 is a sign that the ecumenical landscape is by no means so barren as we sometimes fear. And this Anglican hospitality has elicited a beautiful and often piercing meditation on the meaning of the Mass for human living.
Naturally, Radcliffe's book is eirenically conceived. He avoids, for example, extended reflection on doctrinal positions such as sacrifice or the Real Presence, which might alienate Protestant readers. Nevertheless, this is unmistakably both a Catholic and a Dominican book. Structured round the texts and ceremonies of the modern Mass, almost every page testifies to Radcliffe's own immersion in the writing, teaching and companionship of his brothers and sisters in the Order of Preachers. Although he does not dwell on the craggier aspects of Catholic teaching, we are never in doubt about the sources of his own spiritual understanding. At one point he quotes approvingly the reaction of the American novelist Flannery O'Connor to the suggestion that the eucharistic presence was best understood symbolically: "If it's a symbol, then the hell with it!"
Despite his subject matter, however, Radcliffe disclaims any intention of writing a work of eucharistic theology or a liturgical commentary. Instead, he uses the successive stages of the Sunday Mass as the basis for an extended meditation on the Christian life. The Liturgy of the Word becomes the basis for an examination of what it is to have faith, the offertory and eucharistic prayer for a meditation on hope, and the communion rite from the Our Father onwards to explore our encounter with God and one another in love.
The Mass for him is a drama into which we enter in order to discern the shape and meaning of human life itself, which otherwise might seem no more than "a punctual succession of joys and sorrows" - just one damn thing after another. We go to Mass not primarily to recall an event in the past, but to learn to live hopefully together towards the future. We encounter God there, in St Thomas Aquinas' words, not as a noun, but as verb, and Christ not merely risen but rising, homo resurgens. The worshipping community is a school of Christ-like living, an entry into Jesus' own costly self-giving. To recognise the Real Presence exposes our real absences to each other, in a society where even relationship is not gift, but commodified and priced. The task of the preacher is to proclaim the peace of God, but it is a peace which opens us to solidarity with the suffering of our afflicted brothers and sisters. To go to church, therefore, is not a comforting routine for the secure and incurious, but a place of expectation, challenge and growth: the appropriate headgear is not posh hats, but crash helmets.
Radcliffe is at his best perhaps in moments of expository insight, for example, on our fear of freedom: "The disciples were locked in the upper room, ‘for fear of the Jews'. This is a strange fear, since they themselves were Jews. They were afraid of themselves." He is memorable also in more extended discussions of the central moments of the Mass. He bases a moving discussion of the concept of God's holiness as the overcoming of separation round the idea of Christ's death outside the camp, in the Epistle to the Hebrews. His exploration of the meaning of sacrifice makes illuminating use of Lewis Hyde's well-known study of gifts and gift-giving.
Throughout the book, Radcliffe lightens and enriches his writing with insights drawn from remarkably wide and eclectic reading. Some of the absences seem as notable as the presences: plenty of St Thomas, of course, plenty of Herbert McCabe, more surprisingly perhaps, plenty of Benedict XVI: but no Rahner, no von Balthasar, no John Paul II. The list of those drawn on includes of course minds encountered in the course of his Dominican theological formation, from St Thomas to Cornelius Ernst. Radcliffe's much-loved teacher, Geoffrey Preston, little known outside the Dominican order, provides a remarkable passage on the meaning of the eucharistic elements of bread and wine. They are both nourishment and the stuff of celebration - holidays and weddings and romantic dinners for two. But they are also the focus of "the organised selfishness of tariffs and price rings ... the breadline ... the bottle ... drunkenness, broken homes, sensuality, debt": and this too we lay upon the altar of the crucified.
But also in evidence are a wide range of insights gathered not from books but from encounters literally on the wing. The book has many echoes of Radcliffe's exhausting years as a globe-trotting ministry of support and solidarity while he was leader of the worldwide Dominican community, whose members work in some of the most dangerous and desolate places on the planet. Radcliffe's understanding of the eucharistic life has been shaped by the joyful self-giving of his brethren in South African townships and the rubbish-heaps of San Salvador, and by the martyrs he has had the privilege of knowing.
This is a challenging but never puritanical book. Radcliffe underlines the cost of the eucharistic living, the often painful but always life-giving opening out to others involved in the attempt to be, like Jesus, truly human. But he never harps on about sins, since the Mass proclaims their forgiveness. Human imperfection is accepted as well as absolved at the table of the one who dined, by preference, with sinners: "God accepts our limited, fragile, forgetful loves if that is all we have to offer him now". So Radcliffe persuasively (and piquantly) uses Pope Benedict's exegesis of Peter's confession after the fish breakfast in Galilee to highlight the incongruity of refusing Communion to men and women in irregular marriages or in gay relationships: "if there is a place for Peter ... then there is a place for us all".
This is a serious but never a solemn book: not the least of its joys is the gallery of Dominican eccentrics who punctuate its pages. They include the learned but famously irritable Père Regemay, whom Radcliffe overheard in a Paris common room shouting angrily at one of his brethren, "Since I began to practise yoga I am CALM, I am CALM". Best of all is the ancient Oxford lay brother who, when Radcliffe offered him Communion with the usual words, "The Body of Christ", replied, simply, witheringly and with the accumulated wisdom of a long life lived eucharistically: "I know".
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