Homily: On Martin Thornton and the Eucharist

Homily delivered on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi 2014 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois.

Now, it was not quite parallel to that moment that Saint Augustine described in his book, Confessions, when it was a little boy in a garden who pointed to a Bible and said to Augustine, “tolle lege,” that is, “take and read.” This was Augustine’s famous conversation moment, when he read in St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” — have a God-centered life, and to throw off his selfish ways.

But if one looks back at one’s life, and discerns moments when a change of direction in life occurs, for me this would certainly be one of them. What am I talking about?

It was almost four years ago that I was celebrating my 36th birthday. I had just completed my first year of seminary courses at Catholic Theological Union, and I wouldn’t start courses at Nashotah House until the coming fall. That morning, Hannah asked me, “it is your birthday, so what do you want to do?” I said, “let’s go to a book store. Let’s go to Half-Price Books.” This is a used book store chain, with a number of outlets around the country and several in the Chicago suburbs. “Ok, so we’ll go to Countryside,” she said. “No,” I said. “The one in Niles on Touhy Ave near that leaning tower thing up there.” “There’s a Half-Price in Niles?” she asked. “Yep,” I said. “And it is bigger than the one in Countryside, so let’s go there.” She agreed, and, because the girls were listening in, I added, “and after that we can go get some ice cream at Oberweiss,” to which there were cheers and happy sounds.

We drove to Niles, arrived at the bookstore, and being a student of theology, I made a bee-line for the theology section of the bookstore. Thumbing through the books, at one moment I came upon a book the title of which immediately grabbed me. It was English Spirituality, by Martin Thornton. Immediately I noticed that this book described my own experience of St Paul’s Parish. It wasn’t in direct ways, as this book was really pastoral theology — that is, intended for clergy and lay catechists as a help of their particular ministries. But it was in the feel of the words and ideas, the pacing, the sensibility. It just felt like here. And as I later came to affirm, it felt clearly Anglican. Clearly Catholic and of Catholic imagination. Clearly Benedictine — by my lights, it is the writing of Martin Thornton, along with John Macquarrie, where the best and most useful examples of Catholic Anglican imagination patiently lie, waiting for the Church to wake up and recognize it.

Why does all this matter on this particular day? In addition to being the Feast of Corpus Christi in this particular year, June 22nd is also the day when in 1986, that is 28 years ago, when Martin died in Crewkerne, England, in the English county of Somerset which is in the south-west corner of England.

He was 71 years old. He was survived by his wife, Monica and their daughter Magdalen, both of whom are still alive and very active. Martin Thornton’s gravestone describes him very simply: a farmer, a priest, and an author. As a farmer, he was one of the early adopters in England of sustainable agricultural practices, this would be during World War II. As a priest, both in parishes as well as being the Canon Chancellor at Truro Cathedral also in southwest England, he specialized in spiritual direction, which is the application of theology to the life of prayer, usually through one on one meetings between the spiritual director and the client, that is to say, the person seeking direction. And as an author, he wrote thirteen books, the first in 1948 and the last in 1986.

He had a number of areas of focus in his writing. The first is the prayer life at its core — the threefold regula of Office-Mass-Devotion, the beating heart of our baptismal life; that is, our behavior, what we do. Another is spiritual direction. Martin strongly held that spiritual direction is one of the historic strengths of Anglican Christianity before and after the 16th century yet has been neglected over the last 150 years. Another focus was the realities and needs of ordinary Christian men and women, boys and girls. He felt their needs had become overlooked by serious works of theology: what does it mean to be a parishioner, he explored. Another focus was the theological endeavor itself — how do we do theology today given our social realities? — he particularly focused on what is known as “ascetical theology,” which are the words and concepts that the Church uses to articulate our experience of theosis, of the journey both joyous and difficult of becoming better disciples and being reformed into greater likeness of Jesus Christ. In these and other areas, Martin Thornton was a genuinely orthodox and Catholic Anglican: someone thoroughly immersed in English and Anglican history, theology, and practice, and because of that, a true innovator and forward-thinker. As he wrote, the “reinterpretation of the Gospel to every age is itself an integral part of orthodoxy.”

Do we hear these words? The “reinterpretation of the Gospel to every age is itself an integral part of orthodoxy.” To be orthodox is not to simply rehearse a laundry list of correct doctrines as some sort of litmus test — do you check off the correct boxes on the test? Nor is it to simply reinvent the Christian faith according to the whims and trends of contemporary society. If it feels right, let’s affirm it! No, we believe in the living God, not a god of museum history, or a god who has been wrong for 2000 years, but the active and loving God of history, and of this present moment, and of this present circumstance and of these social conditions.

And, appropriate for this Feast day, we believe in the living bread that came down from heaven. The living bread come down to redeem us and feed us. Martin Thornton taught on the Eucharist and this is part of his teaching. Yes, the living bread comes down to redeem us, but also, you might say in the “other direction,” our world is taken up into the heavenly realm. The bread and the wine, both work of human hands — the kneading and baking of the bread, the fermenting and bottling of the wine — are received by us from God, are directly of the goodness of the Lord, the God of all creation — these are taken into God. This bread is taken into God, and hence breadhood itself, the very nature of bread. This wine is taken into God, and hence winehood itself, the very nature of wine.

The nature of bread and the nature of wine are that they are created by God! If their nature is given by Christ their fullest natures in the Eucharist, then through the Eucharist, all of creation is taken up into God. The very nature of creation — creaturelihood, you might say — is taken up into the heavenly realm.

Our food, then, is of the heavenly realm. And this is of significance not only for our own personal salvation, but just as importantly, for all of creation. All of God’s creatures. The Eucharist is the greatest intercessory prayer there is. The Prayers of the People are very important in their particularity and specificity. But the ultimate Prayer of the People is the Eucharist. Because through each Eucharist, through each taking up of creation into God, into the heavenly realm, all of creation grows more and more like Christ. This Eucharist, right here, right now, is the best thing that can be done for the entire universe, the cosmos of planets, stars, nebulas, galaxies and the rest, the best thing we can do for society.

This is something of what Martin Thornton teaches about the Eucharist. This is what he would have us consider. His teaching was never that this must be intellectually understood as one understands that 2 plus 1 equals three. His teaching is that this theology — this profound theology of the Eucharist that redeems creation, redeems reality — that this theology is to be prayed with; is to be contemplated; is to be thought about is to be at the center of our own lives, and at the center of our community gathered around this altar, and those communities gathered around altars everywhere on Earth. To pray with this, to contemplate it, to wonder about it, to question it and even interrogate it, and to celebrate it, for the Eucharist is an incredible gift of love from God.

The Lord opened the doors of Heaven: and rained down manna also upon them to eat:
He gave them bread from heaven: So men did eat angels’ food, alleluia!