In the Divine Comedy, as Dante prepares to pass from purgatory to heaven, he walks through the Garden of Eden. He presents the garden as an elusive primordial memory that haunts the dreams of all true poets: “Those ancients who in poetry…presented [humanity’s] happy state…dreamt this place. Here, mankind’s root was innocent, and here [is] the nectar of which the poets sing” (Purgatorio, 28:139-144, Mandelbaum translation).
The great pagan poets may have never seen or even heard of Eden, but they intuitively knew that there is a place of innocence and harmony from which our fallen humanity comes. Dante’s image of a primordial memory serves as an excellent analogy for what Christians experience regarding our own unity. The Last Supper is perhaps the most vivid mystery communicating what it means to belong to the Church. At that meal there were three essential experiences that always define the Church when she is in a condition of spiritual health. First, there was the tranquil spirit of reverence and adoration as Jesus celebrated the Eucharist for the first time. Secondly, there was the warmth of loving, spiritual conversation among friends. And, finally, there was the call to humble service as Jesus washed the feet of His apostles.
The Church’s renewal will come when we intentionally cultivate all three components that were the mark of her first sacramental celebration. Some within the Church advocate for a greater reverence in the sacraments, others for a greater attentiveness to serving the poor, and still others to building the community life. It is easy to point a finger at any one and say, “What we need is to improve in this area and the others do not matter!” But it is only through all three growing together that divisions within the Church will be healed.
Practically speaking, how can we cultivate this unity? There are moments that we get a glimpse into what the Last Supper felt like for the first disciples — it could be on a retreat, or through an uplifting meal with friends, or during a Mass in which we are particularly prayerful. We must flee from the mentality of “fixing the Church” by one “side” conquering another. Rather, this unity will come about through each disciple committing to the Last Supper grace — seeking Jesus’ face in the reverent reception of the sacraments, the warmth of communal life and humbly serving one another. If you reflect that any of these elements are lacking in your community, Jesus is calling you to make them present. Only then will His disciples once more experience as a living reality the dreamed-of communion that is the Church.
Father Charlie Archer is associate pastor of St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood.