(In this week’s blog, Richard E. McCarron responds to an earlier blog, This Dinner Party Nourishes Lives after Loss. McCarron is associate professor of liturgy at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, IL. His current research project focuses on an engagement of liturgy and theologies of sacrament with food studies.)
Richard E. McCarron
Jerry Ruff’s presentation of The Dinner Party (TDP) movement in the context of the research of the weakened ties of young adults to a faith-community connection offers us a chance to see how alternative experiences of shared story, community, and mutual care can take shape.
As Hal Taussig, in his studies of early Christian identity, has put it, “In the Beginning was the meal.” The shared meal—and by shared, I mean not only the sharing of food but also of stories and presence—has social, cultural, and religious dimensions. I like the way we have learned from looking at the shared meal with depth to see it in terms of a reciprocal relationship: we are both what we eat and whom we eat with. At least as far as the Jesus movement is concerned, the meal was a central “enacted parable” of the reign of God: a place of welcome, encounter, and mission. The church’s identity was forged at shared tables in a mosaic of meal events. Emmaus is often singled out as a paradigmatic meal: the encounter in confusion, the shared story of sorrow and struggle, the hope that comes from a stranger’s retelling of the story, and the welcome of a stranger for a meal—the breaking of the bread. As Emmaus shows, we cannot just remain at the table, but the shared table compels us to pick up our walking sticks again and go back to the center of our sorrow and struggle and tell a new story of possibility to others.
This attention to the shared table as a site and source of our Christian identity, of the things of our daily life and living as part of our enacting our relationship with God and others, has been named under the term sacramentality. Simply put, the sacramental principle names a dynamic whereby in and through the relationships and things of this world, we come to a deeper relationship with God, one another, and the earth: places of encounter, thanksgiving, and communion. Latin@ theologians speak of lo cotidiano, shared daily life both ordinary and extraordinary, as a primary source of theologizing and traditioning.
The Catholic Church today might take a cue from these contemporary sites and sources of embodied faith. A recovery of the sacramental principle can help provide an alternative to the way that many of our official sacramental practices have become fossilized—cut off from the dynamics of daily living and engaging stories that matter. TDP shows the dynamics of hosts willing to make a space for strangers to share the stories of their lives together that soon creates a community even if it might be spontaneous.
Although those participating in these alternative liturgies may not name them as sacramental events—certainly not in terms of the official seven, nor as an experience of a sacramental worldview—perhaps this is the opportunity church leaders are presented with. First, these alternative liturgies are not in competition with the church’s official liturgy but represent part of the plurality of ways people are forging a journey. The late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner spoke of the liturgy of life leading to the liturgy of the church. Parishes can strategize a way to offer a space where these conversations that matter can take place and practice a hospitality that encourages diverse ways of ritualizing and living our faith. There are initiatives other denominations and faith-based organizations have taken, for example, St Lydia’s Dinner Church or the People’s Supper, the latter a collaboration among The Dinner Party, Hollaback!, and Faith Matters Network.
In my opinion, pastoral leaders should not try to recreate TDP or the two examples I offered, but rather they can gain insight that lets their imagination open up to what the liturgy of life is telling us all.