The Eucharist and Christian Organizing
On a prayer retreat in a Benedictine monastery, I ventured to ask the prior if I, as a non-Catholic, might be allowed to receive the Eucharist when it came time for Mass. He evaluated me gently and asked, “Do you long for it?” I knew full well that undisciplined longing without faith and following and forgiveness would be inadequate—perhaps even dangerous—as the basis for coming to the table. But longing was the perfect word for what I was experiencing, and he heard me out.
The Lord’s table is a place of longing. We long for the bread and cup; we long for community; we long for an encounter with Christ himself. And it’s at the table that we are taught to long aright, which at its root involves being formed in our identity as followers of Jesus.
In this way, the Eucharist is the organizing principle of the church, and whether we’re joining a protest march or launching a movement or leading an institution, it’s Jesus’s table that should lend Christian organizing for social change its distinctive cast and character. The Eucharist orients leadership in at least three ways: as bottom-up direct action, patient contemplative action, and sustained action dependent on Christ as our “true food” and “true drink” (John 6:55 NRSV).
The apostle Paul laid out the identity-forming dynamic of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The mystical “sharing in the body of Christ” forms the church as the body (1 Cor. 10:16–17). We become what we eat.
Augustine of Hippo in fourth-century North Africa picked up this thread to develop his great insight that the Eucharist births a people. “It is we ourselves—we, his City—who are his best, his most glorious sacrifice. The mystic symbol of this sacrifice we celebrate in our oblations.” The church, he continues, is a people “united by a common agreement on the object of their love.” Drawing on Hebrews 11:10, Augustine names this people the “City of God,” contrasting us to the “earthly city.” And if the table births a people, it also gives rise to a politics—a way of being in the world that stewards blood and treasure toward the kingdom’s ends. Christ is our aim and our love, the telos of the city of God, the beginning and way and end of our earthly journey. “The City is on pilgrimage until the time of its kingdom comes,” writes Augustine.
Understanding the Lord’s table as fuel and form for the pilgrim church on its journey toward the fullness of the kingdom allows Christians to operate from a clearer sense of God’s will and ways in the rough-and-tumble, one-step-forward-two-steps-back work of organizing for social change. When we lose sight of the church’s eucharistic constitution, Christian becomes a wayward adjective, a free radical that can be used to sponsor nearly any course of action, regardless of whether it bears witness to the church’s uniquely cruciform character.
Take the way so much that passes for Christian politics plays out in the United States. The church all too often becomes the world’s politics by other means, a conveniently organized space where politicos can make their pitch—be it on abortion or LGBTQ rights or the “stolen” 2020 election. But for the sign outside, the politics being enacted in and through the church often bears little resemblance to the way of Jesus. It’s church as handmaiden to nationalistic and militaristic strains of power, a politics based on fear rather than the shared love envisioned by Augustine. As Catholic writer Ross Douthat has observed, while “a more fully Christian politics would be a powerful witness for the faith,” Christians have often opted instead for the politics of domination: win elections and seat judges who can coerce the system to actions amenable to Christian interests.
Where do we go from here? Glimmers of another way rarely arise in the business-as-usual halls of power. But we can take clues from the witness of mystics and monks, contemplative activists like Dorothy Day and Charles de Foucauld, and even my own—and much more mundane—experience of Christ sustaining me in rural ministry at his table.
Dorothy Day—Eucharistic Direct Action
During the economic turmoil of the Great Depression, Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker newspaper in New York City. The vision laid out in the Catholic Worker would soon translate into houses of hospitality that offered living quarters and food relief to the urban poor, as well as farming communes meant to feed the hungry and teach self-sufficiency. Catholic faith drove the movement. In fact, Peter Maurin, Day’s friend and a key early figure, originally envisioned the houses of hospitality as a sort of religious brotherhood living under the authority of a priest.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the Eucharist commits us to the poor,” and thus it was for the Catholic Worker. The table of the Lord shaped Day and Maurin’s emerging communities and cast their hope for the future. Under the strain of voluntary poverty meant to free people for direct action in service to the poor, Day writes of toilets out, dishwashers who “wipe their noses on the dish towels, people who are mental cases. . . . Without the sacraments of the Church, primarily the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper as it is sometimes called, I certainly do not think that I could go on.”
This is Eucharist as direct action, a bottom-up insurgency of grace that sparks transformation not by winning control of the system but by dropping a pebble in its boot. To be sure, Day—and Maurin in particular—wanted a revolution. But it was a revolution of a different sort, centered on the eucharistic table. Writes Day, “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart.” It’s the Eucharist begetting a community that through direct actions calls into question our easy assumptions about economics and privilege.
Charles de Foucauld—Eucharistic Contemplative Action
After a wayward younger life that included a career in the French military, Charles de Foucauld experienced an intense conversion of heart that led him into monasticism, the Catholic priesthood, and eventually a hermit’s life in the desert of Algeria from 1901 to 1916. During his military years, Foucauld had come away impressed by the genuine religious practice of the Muslim Tuareg people. Their fervor drove him deeply into his own Catholic faith and planted the seed of what would later become his mission among the Tuareg.
Foucauld’s mission was inspired by what he called the “hidden life of Nazareth,” a reference to Jesus’s thirty years of secret and internal work before the unveiling of his public ministry. Rather than actively preaching the gospel among a nomadic and colonized Muslim people, Foucauld built an adobe hermitage as a place of hospitality where he devoted himself to translation, prayer, and adoration of the Eucharist. “If we started speaking to them about Our Lord, they would surely flee,” Foucauld wrote in a letter. Instead, out of friendship, acts of kindness, and good advice, Foucauld would go about “proving to them that Christians love them.” This was “evangelization not through word but through the blessed Sacrament, the mass, prayer, penance, the practice of the evangelical virtues, charity—brotherly and universal charity that shares the very last mouthful of bread with any poor person, any visitor, any stranger, and welcomes every human being as a beloved brother.” Foucauld saw himself as the forerunner of what he hoped would become a community of brother monks in the desert, though that community would emerge and take root throughout the Muslim world only after his death.
The Eucharist taught Foucauld to appraise the world with the patient and loving eyes of Christ. He saw Christ in the bread and wine, which was his window into seeing Christ in the world—Christ present with him in his hovel, Christ among a people who yet did not know him. Foucauld’s devotion to the Catholic practice of eucharistic adoration opened him up to a contemplative outlook toward the people he lived among. He could take the long view because Foucauld believed that Christ was really present. First presence, then love, then encounter—the words would follow. And everything began with the Eucharist.
Christian organizing is eucharistic in that the means are the ends. Like Foucauld, Christ calls us to the tools of patience and presence. To take up that contemplative stance already effects a transformation—in us as we follow him into hiddenness and smallness but also in those around us who are touched by the living Christ, whose influence does not depend on their recognition of him. “The priest is a monstrance,” wrote Foucauld, referring to the metal sunburst pedestal where the eucharistic host is displayed and before which he would have spent long hours lovingly contemplating Christ-in-the-bread. “His role is to show Jesus. He must disappear and make Jesus seen.”
Myself—Sustained Action in Ministry
Here’s a story: the Eucharist saved my ministry. A couple of years back, I found myself walking in the wilderness, asking what was next. My little rural congregation was struggling, and in the search for a way forward, I felt listless and dark. The bottom of my vocation didn’t drop out so much as sag.
It wasn’t any one thing. I hadn’t lost my faith. I loved the church. I took care of myself, exercising and eating well and getting (mostly) enough sleep. But there I was, feeling a little raw and slumpy.
What I did next wasn’t exactly a strategy for church revitalization or personal rejuvenation. It was more a response to a hunger I couldn’t quite describe. Together with a couple of friends, I launched a eucharistic small group. About once a month, we began gathering in each other’s homes to celebrate a short worship service centered around the Lord’s table. We ate together. The kids played. We talked.
And something happened. Jesus kept showing up, drawing our tender stories out in ways we couldn’t have expected and tugging us into sharing life together. For me, it was the food I had been looking for, bread that sustained me for the journey. The friendships that developed were life-giving, but it was Jesus’s bread and wine that I needed most, because it was his body and blood that helped me return to myself.
Ministry is hard in strange ways. But perhaps one of the hardest forces torqueing ministers’ lives is the temptation to perform. As Ruth Haley-Barton writes, “Holding to deep spiritual values in the face of the pressure to perform—whether performance is measured by numbers, new buildings or the latest innovation—is one of the greatest challenges of spiritual leadership.” Congregational and personal expectations conspire to decenter pastors from ministering from a settled and confident identity in God’s love. The ministering person becomes the ministering persona as we try to project an air of expert skill—or something like that. Too often we end up like Elijah of old, careering off into the desert to crash (see 1 Kings 19:4).
Maybe for me it was simply the usual wilderness challenges of rural ministry: the sense of hurry, the fear of missing out, the atmosphere of pervasive anxiety around congregational decline. It might have been that I had crossed a mental deadline, some point I had arbitrarily set for myself by which time I had hoped for my turnaround church to have been turned around. I don’t know. Whatever the path, I was there, and I was hungry for something real. I needed the angel of the Lord to come to me and say, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you” (1 Kings 19:7).
It’s difficult to describe how repeatedly encountering Christ at his table led me home. It wasn’t spiritual caffeine, a jolt to keep me going. Somehow, receiving Christ into myself gave me permission to be myself. His body and blood helped me get back into my own skin. The Eucharist sustained me by returning me to a place of authenticity from which I could minister. Christ was with me, in this place, and therefore I had enough.
Ordinary yet Eternal—Onward with Christ
Any organizational goal worthy of our deepest longings and commitments will always be an order of magnitude greater than our skills and power to attain it. This is where Christian organizing begins with a distinctly eucharistic tension: the bread and wine are ordinary and immediate, yet they are transformed and pointing toward the eternal. Christ accepts us in our humanity and calls us onward in transformation. The Eucharist contains both grace and challenge, and Christian organizing is perpetually strung between the two.
Ultimately, whatever our intermediate goals, the eucharistic table propels us toward a farther horizon by shepherding our deepest longings for God. “He himself is the source of our bliss,” wrote Augustine. “He himself is the goal of all our striving.”
 Augustine, The City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2003), 889, 890, and596.
 See “Many Americans Hear about Politics from the Pulpit,” Pew Research Center, August 8, 2016: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2016/08/08/many-americans-hear-politics-from-the-pulpit/; Peter Wehner, “The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart,” Atlantic, October 24, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/10/evangelical-trump-christians-politics/620469/; and Charles Homans, “A Crusade to Challenge the 2020 Election, Blessed by Church Leaders,” New York Times, April 25, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/25/us/politics/evangelical-churches-trump-election.html.
 Douthat, “Can Politics Save Christianity?” New York Times, December 18, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/18/opinion/christianity-politics.html.
 See Day, Loaves and Fishes (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997)
 Day, Loaves, 23.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., sec. 1397, https://www.usccb.org/sites/default/files/flipbooks/catechism/355/.
 Day quoted in Patrick Jordan, “Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker, and the Liturgy,” Yale ISM Review 4, no.1 (2018): http://ismreview.yale.edu/article/dorothy-day-thecatholic-worker-and-the-liturgy/.
 Day quoted in John Cavadini, “The Eucharist Commits Us to the Poor,” Church Life Journal, October 21, 2019, https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-eucharist-commits-us-to-the-poor/.
 Biographical details taken from Bonnie Thurston, Hidden in God: Discovering the Desert Vision of Charles de Foucauld (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 2016), 19.
 Thurston, Hidden in God, 23; Foucauld quoted in Charles de Foucauld, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 79; Thurston, Hidden in God, 94; and “Little Brothers of Jesus,” Jesus Caritas, http://www.jesuscaritas.info/jcd/lbj.
 Foucauld quoted in Ellsberg, Charles de Foucauld, 82.
 Ruth Haley-Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2018), 27.
 Augustine, City of God, 375.