He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Living on the Mountain: Poor Man's Supper

When visiting my grandparents, we would sometimes have what they called a poor man's supper, which consisted of a little cornbread to eat and milk to drink.

It is good to have frequent reminders of how the poor live and how fortunate we are who are not poor.  My grandfather knew intimately what poverty meant from a very young age and considered himself a poor man in a material sense until the end of his life on this earth.

His family was a large and loving one living on the mountain and working hard to survive the Great Depression.  The Great Depression profoundly shaped their mentality about money and material things, and they passed that mentality on to him, and he and my grandmother on to my mother, and my mother on to me and my siblings.  My grandmother and grandfather were strongly opposed to wasting anything, and long before contemporary environmentalism was obsessed with reusing and recycling and reducing waste, they were impressively efficient in how they used their possessions.  To this day, their household has such a small carbon footprint that many environmental activists should be envious.

They understood that poverty is the natural state of affairs and that prosperity was something to be grateful for, a gift that could never quite be earned because no matter how hard we work, it first comes from the earth we did not create.  They understand that to live is to embrace an immensely valuable gift which we cannot possibly have earned and which we cannot possibly pay back, though we can pay it forward.  And pay it forward they did, begetting many who would be able to enjoy the gift of life as well.

They brought the same gratitude and reverence with them to the small house church they attended every Sunday, showing true sincerity in singing the penitential hymns, in their reverent silence at communion time, and in their donations of money to the church that they didn't want other people to see. Their example prepared me to understand the Christian practice of Holy Communion, what those of us in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church call the reception of the Eucharist, the body and blood of our crucified Lord.

We always approach the Eucharistic feast in our poverty, unable to earn the gift we are about to receive, unable to pay Him back for his sacrifice, and only able to pay it forward with our own loving sacrifices for others.  The Eucharist is a poor man's supper, inaugurated by a man born into a poor family, raised in poverty, and living in poverty until he died for us. It is the wondrous mystery of the God reaching out to us and becoming one of us in our poverty so that we can find the true richness of life that lies beyond this world.

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