Chapter 20: Eucharist and Living Simply

Before reading this chapter, ask yourself or share with friends: In what ways does the Eucharist encourage you to live simply?

The Eucharist Points to Simplicity

The Rule of Life of the Blessed Sacrament Congregation says

Our life is marked by simplicity and moderation. (17)

The simplicity of the Eucharistic ritual suggests that we live our lives in as simple a way as possible. At its most basic, you can celebrate the Eucharist with just a selection of scripture, bread, wine and prayers.

All the major religions and all authentic spiritualities demand that we live simply. You can’t hope to attain a maturity of spirit when caught up in the consumerist mentality which is now so pervasive, at least in the Western world. The pursuit of material goods distracts us too easily from developing a solid spirituality.

The founders of the great religions gave up what comforts and material possessions they had in order to live simply. The Buddha came from a royal family but renounced that life and became enlightened. Abraham left his home in Ur and went off to a foreign country when he felt called by his God to leave everything behind. Muhammad married a wealthy woman but gave up his life of ease and spent time meditating in a cave. Being a tradesman, Jesus was probably what we would call ‘middle class’; he had a house but he left that and took to the roads as a wandering preacher with ‘nowhere to lay his head’. (Luke 9:58)   He tells us

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6: 19–21)

Beware of Advertising

Comparisons may be dangerous but it seems to me it must be more difficult to live simply today than in Jesus’ time because of the all-pervasive advertising that we are bombarded with every day. The aim of advertising is to make you unhappy with what you already have and convince you that you will be happier when you buy this product. Nearly all advertisements are lies to a greater or lesser extent. At best they are exaggerations, at worst totally untrue. If you are serious about progressing in spirituality you must make yourself immune to these enticements.

Eucharist an Encouragement

The Eucharist is a constant reminder to us of how Jesus surrendered himself to suffering and death before the Father raised him into a new life. In view of the immense love shown for us by Jesus, how can we be bothered chasing after material things?

After Jesus had been ministering to the people for a time he asked his followers to do as he was doing and gave them instructions about what to take, or rather, what not to take with them.

He ordered them to take nothing with them for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. (Mark 6:8–9)

They would be unencumbered by a concern for their own material welfare and this simplicity would also give them credibility in the eyes of those they ministered to.

It’s up to each of us to adapt these principles to our own situation in life. You may need to consult a spiritual director or discuss the matter with a wise and trusted friend. Living simply is not easy. It requires a firmness of purpose and a strong commitment to following Jesus.

Wealth Makes You Happy?

Once we are above the poverty line, money makes only a small contribution to our level of happiness. In fact, people who focus on the accumulation of wealth are actually more likely to be unhappy. Materialistic values are counter-productive as over time they heighten insecurity, which is one of the primary causes of unhappiness. It is not surprising that in July 2005 a report titled Why Australians Will Never Be Prosperous, showed that 21.2 percent of surveyed individuals in the lowest income group (0–$25,000) indicated that they were totally satisfied with life whereas only 12.7 percent in the highest income group ($100,000 plus) said they were totally satisfied. (Mirko Bagaric, The Age, January 20, 2007)

There was an intriguing reality series produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2007. It showed five ordinary women who volunteered to share the life of nuns in a Benedictine convent for thirty three days. It was a fascinating insight into the simple life style of the contemplative nuns who had given up their independence and their chance of accumulating a lot of consumer goods.

After a brief introduction into what they had let themselves in for, the five volunteers were asked to put into a large box those items they would not be using for the next month: mobile phones, iPods, digital cameras, make-up, jewellery. It was a significant moment of renunciation of material things, albeit for a short time – and they survived!

The Old Happiness Gauge by Michael LeunigThe Old Happiness Gauge (Michael Leunig)

A group of ten friends in San Francisco were discussing the impact of mass consumerism and our disposable society over a dinner. They decided to give up shopping for a year: no new clothes, gadgets, computers, car parts, mobile phones, books or music. After an appearance on US television, they found they had a global following. More than 4000 people joined an online discussion group and swapped ideas.

Concerns about rampant consumerism, the pressure from retailers and advertisers, and messages such as the post-September 11 promotion of shopping as a patriotic duty were among the main motivations’. One man said, ‘The real revelation is that it isn’t that hard. We all have so much stuff, we could probably live for years without replacing anything. (The Age, January 6, 2007)

Amazingly, these people were attacked by some as ‘un-American’ and ‘economic terrorists’.

The financial downturn which began in 2008 throws another light on the matter of living simply. Many who had no interest in living simply for spiritual reasons, have been forced to do so because of the economic crisis. When this happens on a large scale, a huge social problem results – workers lose their jobs because fewer people are buying consumer goods. Yet another consideration has to be taken into account. That is, the planet can’t sustain the current drain on our resources. We can’t mine for metals, coal, oil and other materials just to satisfy an unreasonable demand for a new car or a new computer every couple of years. We need to devise a new kind of economy so that we can live simply in accordance with the gospels, use our resources sustainably and provide full employment. That’s a huge challenge!

The Eucharist and Eating

Eucharistic spirituality, which concerns the sacred meal of bread and wine, should have an influence on our daily meals. In the matter of nutrition, let’s be content with simple, wholesome food and drink. What’s healthy for the body is healthy for the mind and the spirit. Spiritualities that strongly promote meditation recommend less meat. Buddhism and some of the contemplative orders exclude meat altogether from their meals. Somehow, a meatless diet seems more conducive to meditation.

Another reason for less meat is for the sake of the environment. It takes far more land to produce meat than to produce grain, fruit and vegetables. People in developing countries such as Mexico used to be largely vegetarian. Now they are becoming more prosperous and people are turning more to meat, so they are clearing more land and using more water, hence contributing to the degradation of the planet.

According to a farmer quoted in The Age on 21 April 2007, it takes 55,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef, and according to the magazine Cosmos October/November 2007, this same amount of beef adds 36.4 kilograms of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere!

To advance in spirituality, you need to eat just as much as is necessary, and that’s probably much less than most people eat. My grandmother had a wise saying, “You should leave the table feeling you could eat a little more.”

At one time the Catholic Church had regular days of fasting and abstinence from meat. Unfortunately the rules became very regimented and legalistic, hence lost much of their value. We need to recover the true value of eating less and doing without meat on occasions. This is best done when it’s voluntary and graded according to the individual’s capacity, preferably under the supervision of a spiritual director. Supervision is especially important if you want to fast entirely from food for a day or more. For most people eating significantly less is probably sufficient fasting.

I find it’s very helpful to have a weekly program of certain days for eating less, certain days for abstaining from meat, certain days free of alcohol. Such a program helps you to keep your resolutions much better than leaving it to a vague promise. Friday, the day that Jesus died, has always been recognised as an appropriate day for imposing an eating discipline on yourself. Lent, the time of preparation for the great feast of Easter, is the communal season for fasting and abstinence and has the advantage that we are then in solidarity with other Christians around the world.

You can also have certain days when you give yourself a little treat. Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, is a day of rejoicing and an appropriate day to have a little extra or something a bit special. Major feast days can be just that – occasions for some feasting. We already do that for Christmas and Easter so let’s extend the practice to feasts such as the Body and Blood of Christ, the Trinity, Pentecost Sunday and the major feasts of Mary. I would expect that within families this would be a good way for children to learn that these days are significant. By observing some days for fasting and/or abstinence from meat and other days for little treats  we are living in harmony with our Eucharistic faith and bringing our spirituality into the lived reality of our daily meals.

Jesus says

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body what you will wear . . . indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. (Matthew 6:25–34)

Gift of Self

Paul says Christ ‘emptied himself taking the form of a slave’. (Philippians 2:2)  To follow Jesus in this manner of emptying oneself is to take a gigantic step along the path of ‘living simply’. It implies emptying out of yourself all your desires to appear great, your ambitions for status and ‘success’, your cravings to be good looking and your hopes of being wealthy. You replace these false notions, your false self as it is sometimes called, with the life of Christ, as Paul says

… it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)

St Peter Julian Eymard (Tom Bass, 1997) (Casamento Photography)

A man who took these words of Paul very seriously and made them an integral part of his spirituality was Saint Peter Julian Eymard (1811–1868), founder of the Blessed Sacrament Congregations. Towards the end of his life he developed what he called ‘the Gift of Self’ as an important ingredient of his spirituality.

This conception of a response to the love of God, especially as this is expressed in the Eucharist, by means of a total self-giving on the part of the individual under the prompting of the Holy Spirit and in imitation of the self-emptying of the Incarnate Christ, represents the essence and culminating point of Eymard’s spiritual teaching. (Donald Cave SSS, An Eymardian Spirituality, published by Blessed Sacrament Fathers, Rome, 1995, p.9)

Eymard proposed this form of spirituality especially for the members of his Congregations and those associated with them. He considered the Gift of Self as flowing from the Eucharist.

It is that aspect of union with the life of the Incarnate Son which is expressed symbolically and communicated sacramentally to the faithful in the Eucharist. (Cave, p.45)

Cave also says

The Eucharistic life is consummated in the Gift of Self. (p.9)

To give oneself so totally requires a very high standard of spirituality, and Eymard admits it is ‘rare’. So why am I writing about this ‘rare’ quality to people who are ‘ordinary’?

Well, spirituality is a journey not a destination. We are all on the road towards union with God, and some ‘ordinary’ people may be surprisingly far along this way. It would not be the first time that ‘ordinariness’ masked a very holy person. Saint Therese of Lisieux was not considered to be outstanding in holiness by those who lived with her, and Cave says of Eymard,

Exterior ordinariness characterizes his life and it is only by patient study of the man and the depth and constancy of his union with God that the profundity and originality of his teaching emerges. (p.xxii)

The Gift of Self doesn’t require any distortion of your psychological make-up as some may think. That would be harmful. The human will is a precious gift and must be retained as Cave says

The human person is to be so docile to the prompting of the Spirit that, keeping of necessity the freedom of the individual human will, it may be said that Christ “acts” in the individual, bringing about a true extension of the Incarnation. (p.46, emphasis mine)

This requires a transformation of the inner self and it is the Eucharist that can manage this as we have discussed already in Chapter 12. Cave says

What is evident in Eymard’s latter day teaching is a clear insistence that what is demanded in an adequate response to the Eucharist is a personal transformation, a transformation into living “adorations”. This transformation is effected by union with Christ whose total giving is rendered present by the Eucharistic signs, that gift of himself which effected the redemption of the human race. (p.21)

Yes, the Gift of Self sets the bar very high. However, we are not all expected to be of Olympic standard. On their way to success in the Olympic Games, high jumpers knock the bar off many times, but they persevere and over time they clear the bar at ever increasing heights.

But a word of caution!  Whereas athletes become successful by striving, that is, they keep pushing themselves by their own efforts, it’s more gentle in the spiritual life. The word ‘docile’ above is a key word. We allow ourselves to be ‘docile to the prompting of the Spirit’.

When I was learning piano many years ago, my teacher used to caution me about trying too hard when a piece was marked allegro (fast). He used to say just allow the speed to increase by itself as you become familiar with the piece. Similarly with the spiritual life. We don’t move faster along the spiritual way by striving, by making huge efforts of our will. Cave calls these ‘will-acts’ and says,

This state of total self-giving, which it must be insisted on again, is not a simple aggregation of self-annihilating will-acts. (p.45)

Of course, the guidance of a wise spiritual director is very important.

As you immerse yourself more and more in the Eucharist and become more intimate with the risen Christ, you will find yourself wanting to give up all the trappings of the false self. You will be making the Gift of Self and living simply as is suggested by Eucharistic spirituality.

Chapter 21: Conclusion